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.