Sometimes in politics, you’ve just got to give the people what they want.
Donald Trump proved an expert at that particular obligation during his campaign, enthralling his crowds like a rock legend performing his greatest hits—the mockery of his opponents, the off-the-cuff anecdotes and asides, pledging again and again to build that big, beautiful wall.
On Tuesday night, however, the people arrayed before President Trump were not the adoring faithful, but a considerably fussier bunch: the United States Congress. These 535 men and women will determine whether the bulk of Trump’s ambitious agenda becomes a reality. And they (or most importantly, the Republican half) wanted a different, more focused speech—a bit more hope and optimism, at least some substance if not specifics, unifying more than browbeating, an address they could go on TV and call, yes, presidential.
For a full hour, Trump gave it to them. He stayed on script. He reached out, at least rhetorically, to Democrats with calls for infrastructure spending and paid family leave. He didn’t digress into attacks on the press, or his other enemies. It was a subdued speech, even a little staid, and Republicans loved it all the more.
“The most important thing he delivered was the right tone,” Representative Tom Reed of New York told me moments after he congratulated Trump on his way out of the House chamber. “He was speaking to the innovation spirit of America, the American spirit of optimism. And I thought that was perfect.”
Reed said he “really did appreciate” that Trump wasn’t his usual combative self. “What he did today was to set a tone that’s going to allow us to start the process of healing as a nation,” he added.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, not a man usually prone to hyperbole, immediately labeled the address “a home run,” and Republicans lawmakers walked out of the Capitol with wide grins and, undoubtedly, giant sighs of relief. Even Democrats grudgingly acknowledged that Trump had performed well, although several gave him credit more out of frustration that his inoffensive delivery would overshadow what they and other Trump critics considered the more offensive and largely unrealistic proposals that he actually laid out. “Other than the fact that it was Donald Trump on good behavior, speaking in a softer, soothing voice—and in sentences—there were no details to the plans,” Representative Peter Welch of Vermont said.
Other Democrats suggested Trump benefited from the unfair politics of low expectations. “I don’t think it was one of the more brilliant speeches, but it was a lot better than it could have been,” said Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who announced earlier on Tuesday that he was abandoning his 29-year-long tradition of greeting the president in the center aisle of the House chamber during addresses there.
“I was glad that he [wasn’t] combative. So from that point of view it was good,” Engel said. “But there were a lot of platitudes in it. I’d like a chicken in every pot, too. But how are you going to make it happen?”
That was the unanswered question both of Trump’s speech and of his awkward monthlong introduction to the whims and egos of Congress. The new president has issued a flurry of executive orders, but aside from signing a few bills undoing late Obama-era regulations, his agenda on Capitol Hill is stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. An enormous infrastructure package is waiting on tax reform, which is waiting on health care. And all three of those big-ticket items may soon get sidetracked by an April deadline to avoid a government shutdown.
Divisions among Republicans have played a big role in the delay, but Trump’s inexperience with the legislative give-and-take hasn’t helped. The incoming administration sent up a host of presidential nominees who had not been sufficiently vetted, leading to a slow confirmation process and, more recently, a number of withdrawals. Lawmakers have been irritated by the White House’s mixed messages on key policy details, like a border adjustment tax, and its lack of a clear direction on how Trump wants to replace the Affordable Care Act.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s address, the president’s initial budget request ran straight into a GOP buzz saw. Trump intended to champion what he claimed was a “historic,” $54 billion increase in defense spending that delivered on a clear campaign promise. But the very lawmakers who should have most welcomed the added money—Republican defense hawks—promptly panned the proposal as insufficient. What the White House heralded as a 10 percent increase over current spending levels under budget sequestration, they said, was actually just a pittance more than what former President Barack Obama asked for a year ago. “With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget. We can and must do better,” said Senator John McCain of Arizona, an increasingly frequent Trump critic who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain’s counterpart in the House, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, struck the same note in a separate statement.
Other Republicans hailed the increase in Pentagon spending while at the same time criticizing Trump for proposing to pay for it only with cuts to domestic discretionary programs—and not reforms to entitlement programs that conservatives have long sought but which the president campaigned against. Discretionary spending makes up a fraction of the budget compared with what the government spends on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. And it was already trimmed significantly in the last round of budget cuts after Republicans won control of the House six years ago. “The president’s budget is not something we have to pass,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior Republican loyal to the party leadership. “We can’t balance the budget on discretionary, non-defense spending. It is just not possible to do, and anyone who claims otherwise is on a fool’s errand.”
Cole raised concerns about cuts to the National Institutes of Health, while Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proclaimed Trump’s proposal to slash funding for the State Department and foreign aid was “dead on arrival.” Even to Republicans more sympathetic to Trump’s priorities, the budget request illustrated that the new president still had a lot to learn. “I do think the president needs to understand that’s not the way people are going to work here,” Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho told reporters. “What’s going to happen is if we increase military spending, we’re also going to increase non-defense discretionary.”
“He needs to understand the entitlements, that they are the driver of the debt,” Labrador added.
Republicans have also sought more direction from Trump on health care and tax reform, hoping he could help break the intra-party logjams on elements holding up those efforts. In his address, the president seemed to embrace parts of an emerging House plan to replace Obamacare with refundable tax credits while granting “flexibility” to states that expanded Medicaid. But even then, Trump stopped short of a clear endorsement, leaving his language open to interpretation by supporters and critics of the GOP plan. The White House on Wednesday morning announced that the president would host a meeting that afternoon with Republican leaders, where perhaps they would delve into the details he did not address the night before.
Where Trump has excelled more is in the glad-handing part of congressional relations. He’s brought numerous lawmakers from both parties to the White House, and they all seem to depart with the impression that he supports their priorities. The president’s mutually beneficial courting of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, appears to have paid early dividends. The Democrat, who is up for reelection in a red state next year, has voted for several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and, unlike most of his colleagues, applauded throughout the address on Tuesday.
Trump was at his most charming when he entertained a group of Republican lawmakers at the White House about two weeks ago, recalled Representative Chris Collins, a close Trump ally from New York who organized the meeting. “When we were in the Roosevelt Room and he’s running 10 minutes late, he goes, ‘Hey, have you guys ever been in the Oval Office?’” Collins said. The lawmakers said no. “Come on in!” Trump replied. “Meanwhile his staff is going nuts,” Collins continued. “He’s already 10 minutes late.” The president proceeded to bring in the White House photographers to get pictures with each of the members.
The story is a common one for Trump, and it’s the kind of thing most presidents have done to impress visitors and strike up a connection they’ll remember. But, Collins said, it’s an important gesture from a man who, unlike many of his predecessors, has little previous relationship with the politicians he needs to win over now. “To build goodwill with the White House goes a long way when there’s a tough vote. That was something Obama never did,” Collins said. “Let’s face it: The president is new to government, and the nuances of government.”
The former president routinely dismissed his critics who argued that he could have won more compromise if only he had socialized with Republicans more. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” Obama quipped at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2013.
Trump is testing that theory now, betting that a charm offensive at the White House and during his first address to Congress will spur lawmakers to action more than engaging in the nitty-gritty of policy and procedure. It worked for him well enough during the campaign, but as he’s slowly learning, the solons of Capitol Hill are a much different crowd.