After a divisive first 40 days in office, which saw rifts deepen along party lines — spreading within the GOP and even his own cabinet — Donald Trump sought to soften his tone last night and jumpstart his historically low approval rating (about one percentage point for every day in office) with an address to a joint session of Congress.
And early CNN polling suggests that indeed, Trump succeeded, with 57% reacting "very positively" to his speech, and 69% of those watching saying his policies would "move the country in the right direction." These are big numbers for a man obsessed with numbers; the fact that they’re coming from a network he’s called "very fake news" makes for an ironic twist.
But the reasons for Trump’s relative success with his address were evident. While the baseline tenants of his platform were largely unchanged, this was indeed the most unifying Trump has been to date. He stuck to prompter. He traded bleakness for buoyancy, leaving behind the "American carnage" of his inaugural address in favor of more typically presidential, lofty rhetoric. And most pointedly, he shared an emotional moment of connection and contrition with a Navy SEAL’s widow after some previously contentious exchanges with that family in an extended vignette of which Van Jones said "He became President of the United States in that moment, period."
Taking some of the gas off of Trump’s nationalistic fire proved prudent, and the sort of shift many Republicans hoped for, and Democrats had feared, in the days following his election. This speech, unlike the very Bannon-ized inaugural address, sounded like a pastiche of the many voices that surround Trump on any given day, with a new dose of Reince Priebus’s D.C. wise, Congress-wary pragmatism and Ivanka and Jared Kushner’s relative social liberalism. But of course, it is the former Breitbart honcho’s ideas about the wall, the travel ban, "radical Islam," and economic protectionism that anchor the ship, and ensure those opposed to Trump’s core ideas will remain essentially unmoved.
Still, his opponents did find occasions to stand. Democrats clapped enthusiastically when Trump asked Congress to pass paid family leave, a part of the liberal platform for years. Senator John McCain applauded eagerly when the President talked about his new budget’s emphasis on increased defense and military spending. Per post-speech polling, those in the middle seem willing to give the New York businessman a chance when it came to economic ideas, trade deals, and negotiating a new place for America in a global landscape he claims has profited on America’s permissive porous trade polices and physical borders.
While Obamacare remains a hot issue (one which has surprised the President in its complexity), Trump continued to call vehemently for "repeal and replace" without being able to offer details on the replacement, beyond stating the problem ("rates have gone up 116% last year in Arizona alone" and "forcing people to buy health care was a mistake"). Trump’s solution, at the moment, is more of a goal than a blueprint: "The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we will do."
In the end, it was a speech heavy on rhetoric and light on substance, but it represented a shift in tone which earned the President points for novelty and style. Will it last? This probably depends on how long the White House staff can keep the President’s fingers away from Twitter, and his eyes on the prize (i.e. the teleprompter). One way to ensure compliance: If his ratings go up, it’s likely Trump will follow.
Last night, White House officials stated that today's planned announcement regarding an even more restrictive travel ban was being delayed because the administration wanted to soak in the positive response to Trump's relatively unifying speech.
Like we said: One way to ensure compliance: If his ratings go up, it's likely Trump will follow.