President Trump’s well-delivered speech to Congress on Tuesday night answered one major question — whether he could offer the country a less divisive tone — but provided almost no clarity about how he hopes to fulfill the promises that he made in his campaign.
In addition to “massive” tax cuts and additional write-offs, Trump talked of spending tens of billions more on the military and $1 trillion on infrastructure projects, with no explanation of how to achieve that without expanding the debt, which he criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for having increased.
Similarly, he made promises to come up with a health plan that would simultaneously expand choice, lower costs and improve access. But he said nothing about how that would happen.
Trump appeared to leave the tough decisions in the lap of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, a task made more difficult because the voters who now make up the GOP represent different camps with divergent goals.
Presidents, of course, often use speeches of this sort to lay out broad goals while avoiding the politically perilous details. But Trump’s speech comes after a divisive first month in office in which he has offered no major legislative proposals of his own.
Before his speech, Republicans on Capitol Hill said they hoped for detail that would allow them to craft measures that would win presidential approval. But Trump offered little in the way of a road map.
For now, Trump seems intent with doing what he did in the campaign: promising occasionally contradictory goals and brushing aside concerns about how to pay for it. At times on Tuesday he spoke as if the Treasury were flush with cash; more than a chicken in every pot, he was promising a whole flock.
“Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve,” he said. “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity.”
For many voters, that optimistic tone may come as a welcome break from the gloom-and-doom Trump has repeatedly invoked since he became president, particularly in his inaugural address, in which he spoke of “carnage” across the land.
Historically, a big part of being president has been to invoke a sense of optimistic momentum, even in the worst of times — which these are not. But another part of the mantle is the willingness to risk the president’s political capital. On Tuesday, Trump did the former and ignored the latter.
The Trump who appeared in the well of the House of Representatives was far different than the one who delivered a dark and fearful speech on the National Mall on Jan. 20, less than six weeks ago. The president who over the first few weeks of his tenure seldom appealed to anyone other than his loyal supporters — and who has railed against his opponents — issued multiple soothing calls for national unity.
The division apparent in the country through weeks of protests was obvious only when the camera panned to the audience, which often included stone-faced Democrats and standing, cheering Republicans.
But those Republicans also had to realize that, while Trump no doubt reassured many about his presidency, he delivered them a host of thorny problems.
Trump did not elaborate much on his planned $54-billion increase in military spending next year other than to call it “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” He said additional money would go to veterans.
He punctuated the pitch with the most emotional moment of the speech — his nod to Carryn Owens, the anguished widow of a Navy SEAL killed recently in Yemen, her raw grief visible as she looked skyward during sustained applause, appearing to whisper, “Love you.”
The absence of detail also accompanied his brief discussion of Obamacare. Even as he mocked Obama for the broken promises attached to the healthcare plan — “Remember when you were told that you could keep your doctor, and keep your plan?” — he made a raft of similarly questionable pledges himself for “reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time provide better healthcare.”
Forcing every American to buy insurance was the wrong solution, Trump said, insisting that what was needed was to “lower the cost of health insurance.”
But that goal has proved elusive to both parties for decades, and Republicans are particularly reluctant to intercede in the private sector. Nothing Trump said Tuesday simplified the path ahead.
The problem that now faces Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate, is delivering what the president wants without alienating the disparate elements now housed in their party.
Like other Republican presidents, Trump included a line in his speech denouncing debt. The surest way to cut the debt — a way advocated by many Republicans — is to restrain spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
That may have been an easier sell when much of the party base was relatively wealthy.
But Trump won the party’s nomination on the strength of his appeal to blue-collar Americans for whom such benefits are the bedrock of their retirement; Trump himself repeatedly said in the campaign and since that he would not condone any such cuts.
The two components of the Republican Party have differing demands when it comes to tax reform as well; Trump has pledged before, and did again Tuesday, to cut the taxes of the middle class. But his plan has far more impact on taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans, traditional GOP beneficiaries when it comes to the tax code.
Without much specific guidance from the president, Republican members of Congress are left to suffer the coming criticisms — inevitable in this hyperpartisan era — without certainty that their result will be approved by Trump.
In an interview this week, the president assigned himself grades for his first five weeks in office: A’s for effort and achievement, a C for messaging.
Whatever the gains he made for himself Tuesday with a message that was far more inclusive than in the past, his effort still ranked as incomplete.