State of the Union: A smoother Trump with same hard edge


Anthony Zurcher North America reporter @awzurcher on Twitter

Donald Trump took a measured tone. His speech was garnished in flowery, high-minded language. But beneath it all was the same hard edge.

On immigration, deregulation, taxes and cultural flashpoints, the president offered policies – and claimed victories for accomplishments – that have won him the praise of his base and stirred the ire of his political opponents.

Last year in his address to Congress, Trump laid out an ambitious agenda, but aside from tax reform, many of his big-ticket legislative directives were either derailed in Congress or languished without ever becoming concrete proposals.

On Tuesday night it was time to reform the battalion and head, once more, unto the breach. Here are some key takeaways – as well as an early judgement on how they might fare in the battles to come.

A change of tone, but…

Eleven months ago, the newly inaugurated president gave a speech to Congress that was warmly received, even by some Trump critics on the left. Mr Trump at one point pledged to put “trivial fights behind us”.

It hasn’t exactly turned out that way.

Now the president is again preaching national unity. The question is whether a divided American public – nearly half of whom “strongly disapprove” of the president – can still be converted.

Claims of a “new American moment” and lines like “for the last year we have sought to restore bonds of trust between our citizens and our government” may fall on deaf ears among all but the president’s loyal followers.

In particular Democrats may have tuned out because that “trust” line came immediately after talk about honouring the flag and standing for the national anthem – not-so-veiled references to the president’s sharp attacks on NFL player protests.

The president has a list of accomplishments of which he can – and does – boast, but they were largely moves to please his base. His task, which will take more than one night, is to convince more of the public that his accomplishments are in their interest.

There’s a reason Mr Trump touted the US economy right at the top of his speech. He hopes Americans, many of whom view the nation as on the wrong track, will change their minds when they look at their bank accounts in the months to come.

Outlook: Just a few days after his last congressional speech, Mr Trump tweeted about his suspicions that Barack Obama had his “wires tapped” during the campaign. The “kinder, gentler” Trump was gone in a flash. How long can this one last?

Immigration ‘open hand’

Democrats want protections for undocumented migrants who entered the US as children. The president wants sweeping changes to rules governing legal immigration and billions of dollars for border security, including his border wall.

Mr Trump promised in his address on Tuesday to extend an “open hand” to Democrats. Several weeks ago he said that any comprehensive agreement needed to be a “bill of love”.

In between those two lines, however, was a government shutdown and considerable acrimony. The president has belittled his Democratic opponents and accused them of endorsing open borders and increased crime.

And that “open hand” quote, which was released to the press before the speech, looked considerably different when it turned out to be surrounded by extended passages about immigrant crime, gangs and a not-so-veiled swipe that “Americans are dreamers too”.

Perhaps this is all just part of his negotiating style, to be shrugged off when a deal is near. But with Democrats worried that their base won’t allow them to back down from a fight, a promise of co-operation probably won’t be enough.

Outlook: An open hand can be a gesture of kindness or the prelude to a slap. The chasm between the two sides is just as wide as it was yesterday. In fact, it may be wider.

‘Infrastructure week’ revisited

It has become a running joke in Washington circles to exclaim something like “infrastructure week is off to a great start” any time an administration-friendly news cycle is upended by a Trump-created conflagration.

A White House focus on an infrastructure investment programme has been frequently promised and oft-delayed.

Now it’s back as a topic of conversation – this time, with an anti-regulation twist. The president received cross-party cheers for calling for big spending – $1.5tn – but Democrats sat on their hands when told it could come from subsidised private investment. He also held out the hope that building projects would be easier to accomplish by cutting red tape.

“We built the Empire State Building in just one year,” Mr Trump said. “Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”

There were other areas of possible bipartisan compromise – on lowering prescription drug prices, job training, prison reform and family leave legislation – but they were only mentioned in passing. Infrastructure, it seemed, was where the president is most likely to make an extended effort.

Outlook: Spending money on bridges and roads is popular. It creates local jobs and makes constituents happy. Democrats like it. Republicans like it. The president likes it. While deregulation may be a sticking point, this is a deal waiting to get done.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here