Opinion: Low expectations turn a middling Trump speech into a masterpiece

President Trump addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

By any objective standard, President Trump’s speech to Congress Tuesday night was fair to middling: a standard-issue recitation of his priorities seasoned with calls for bipartisan compromise and closing with a lyrical appeal to members of Congress to join him in “dreaming big and bold and daring things for our country.”

Trump also performed the president’s traditional role of apostle of intercommunal harmony, noting the end of Black History Month and condemning threats made against Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries as well as the shooting of two Indian men in a Kansas City suburb. Those incidents, Trump said, “remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

Like other recent presidents, Trump saluted special guests in the audience, including Carryn Owens, the widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in Yemen.


To judge from some of the ecstatic reactions to the speech, one might think that it was an oration for the ages. “He became president of the United States in that moment, period,” CNN commentator Van Jones gushed, referring to Trump’s recognition of Owens.

Much was also made of the fact that Trump declared: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.” Again, this was State of the Union boilerplate (although the speech was not technically an SOTU). In his Jan. 24, 2012, address, President Obama urged Congress to emulate the U.S. armed forces, who “don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.”

What occasioned the rapturous reaction to Tuesday’s speech was that it came from Trump, of whom so little in the way of grace was expected.

Even the condemnation of the threats against the Jewish community centers was notable because Trump had reacted resentfully when asked at a recent news conference to comment about anti-Semitism (and suggested earlier Tuesday, according to Pennsylvania’s attorney general, that threats against Jewish institutions were being made to “make others look bad” — the implication being that they were a false flag operation).

So the Trump speech received rave reviews mostly because of a post-election variation on the expectations game. And perhaps because commentators hoped against hope that this “presidential” performance was the beginning of a trend, and not just a lucid interval.

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