President Trump set out an ambitious agenda as he addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, in a speech perhaps more notable for its tone than its substance.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning,” Trump said at the outset of his speech. Later on, he declared: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.” The president went on to say: “From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears, inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past, and guided by our vision, not blinded by our doubts.”
It marked a striking change of tone from his campaign and his early days in office, from a president who has frequently feuded with critics, including members of his own party. The optimistic tone was equally a departure from Trump’s inaugural address, in which he painted a picture of a country in decline and memorably promised to end “American carnage.” On Tuesday, he acknowledged that “the challenges we face as a nation are great,” but he added “our people are even greater.”
In outlining his ambitions, Trump doubled down on core Republican priorities like repealing the Affordable Care Act, calling on Congress to save “Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.” He emphasized law and order, vowing to ensure enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws and to protect the country from terrorism. “We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border,” he said.
Trump also indicated that he would be open to “real and positive immigration reform,” a remarkable suggestion given his hardline promises to crackdown on illegal immigration—though he stopped short of advocating a path for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status. Yet even as he called for unity and reform, Trump continued to emphasize controversial policies that could undermine any attempt at bridging the national divide. The president highlighted his directive to the Department of Homeland Security to open up an office that will highlight the “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement,” despite the fact that research indicates that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens.
The president also endorsed policies that a Democratic president might have championed if the election had turned out differently. “My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clean water,” Trump said. And he called on Congress to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, a priority that could set up a clash with fiscal conservatives.
It was an explicit acknowledgment that, following the president’s flurry of executive actions in the opening days of his administration, the fate of his agenda now largely rests with Congress.
The sweeping address took place after controversies dogged the early weeks of the Trump administration. The resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over contacts with the Russian ambassador has fueled calls from Democrats to investigate potential links between Russia and the administration, while the president’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations led to protest and disorder at at airports, and was later blocked in federal court.
Trump has moved quickly to follow through on some of his most high-profile campaign trail promises after taking office. During his first month in the White House, he signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership international trade deal. He also nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Antonin Scalia, a move that won widespread praise from conservatives and Republicans in Congress.
The president was quick to cite these as, as well as other actions he has taken, as accomplishments. “We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption,” he said, a line that drew laughter from several congressional Democrats in the audience as he pointed to a five-year lobbying ban for administration officials. He added that his administration has undertaken what he described as “a historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations.”
For much of what Trump wants to do next, though, he may need to rely on Congress. And he may soon find that it is easier to make promises, and sign executive orders, then successfully enact legislation. Divisions are already apparent within the Republican caucus over how to pursue changes to President Obama’s signature healthcare law. On Tuesday, Trump set the bar high by calling on Congress to “repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better healthcare.” He added: “The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we will do.”
Trump endorsed tax credits that would allow Americans to purchase health insurance, a proposal at which some House conservatives have balked, saying it would in effect create a government subsidy.
Trump also called on Congress to approve what he referred to as “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” and stated that his “economic team is developing historic tax reforms that will reduce the tax rate on our companies” and “provide massive tax relief for the middle class.”
Turning to foreign policy, Trump declared that “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.” But he also acknowledged the role of existing alliances in the fight against ISIS, promising to “work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.” That, too, was a change in tone for the president that told CNN last year “I think Islam hates us,” and has seldom emphasized the value of standing with Muslims against extremism.
He offered a similar message on the domestic front, opening his speech by declaring that the country “stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its forms.” Trump had faced criticism for failing to swiftly denounce bomb threats against Jewish institutions and the desecration of graves in Jewish cemeteries, and a shooting last week in Kansas.
Many congressional Democrats found ways to show opposition to the president’s agenda on Tuesday. A number of Democratic lawmakers opted to invite guests to the speech who either have been or could be impacted by administration policies and proposals, including the president’s travel ban, and promised Affordable Care Act repeal. A number of House Democratic women opted to wear all white, a color worn by suffragettes, during the president’s address. “We wear white to unite against any attempts by the Trump administration to roll back the incredible progress women have made in the last century,” Democratic congresswoman Lois Frankel said in a statement.
But in the speech, Trump called for unity between Republicans and Democrats, attempting to heal the wounds opened up by a divisive campaign. “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope,” Trump said. “Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people.”