The Guardian view on Trump’s Congress speech: different tone، same threat
Thursday 02/March/2017 - 11:12 AM
By his own standards، President Trump’s address to Congress was something of a welcome relief. Five weeks ago Mr Trump delivered the most rebarbative inaugural address in modern US history. Since then he has abused the American press as enemies of the people، picked fights on social media، gone to war with a department store chain about his daughter’s clothing brand، got into stupid arguments about crowd numbers at his inauguration and continued to insist، in defiance of all fact، that he did not lose the popular vote in November. Only last weekend his chief strategist Steve Bannon told a conservative audience that the Trump administration intended to have a daily fight with its enemies as it pursues its agenda of economic nationalism and the deconstruction – Mr Bannon’s word for destruction – of the entire regulatory state.
Judged against that backdrop، Tuesday’s address to Congress – a new president’s equivalent of the state of the union address – was more conciliatory. Superficially at least، this was a different President Trump from the one who has so dramatically divided America and so understandably alarmed the world. True، he structured his speech around many of the policy goals that have become his campaign hallmark: protectionism، infrastructure investment، tougher immigration controls، the wall with Mexico، scrapping Obamacare، a lobbying crackdown and increased military spending. But he clothed it in language that was more placatory. He reached out to black and Jewish Americans whom he has previously antagonised. He spoke more warmly of Muslims than he did on the campaign trail. There was no lashing out at China and other foreign nations and، in a week when Tinseltown is a sitting target، there was no snarling at Hollywood liberals either.
Much of this can be explained by the nature of the event. Congress – and in particular a Republican Congress addressed by a nominally Republican president – expects to be treated with respect، especially with an ambitious budget due to be unveiled later this month. Last week the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped Mr Trump would give “a tweet-free، optimistic and uplifting message”. The president’s speechwriters clearly tried to oblige. There was unifying rhetoric. There were respectful notes about Congress’s role in crafting legislative responses. There were appeals for Democrats and Republicans to work together and reassuring remarks about international institutions، in particular Nato.
Mr Trump sometimes talks as though he is a dictator. That may indeed be his instinct. But he isn’t one. Congress is not his to command. His political impulses and theirs are different on issues such as entitlement programmes like Medicare and social security، as well as geopolitics. There are occasional signs، a few weeks into the Trump presidency، that he is beginning to grasp the complexity of the job. This week he admitted that he had not known how demanding the issue of healthcare would be. Clearly he was not paying attention while President Obama grappled with the problem eight years ago. But Tuesday’s speech contained several sections – on health، schools، immigration and crime، among others – in which it was implicit that compromise on some of the details would be necessary. Welcome، however erratically، to the democratic political world، Mr Trump.
This was just one speech. Yet there are no grounds for thinking، in this most chaotic and divided of administrations، that the battle between the disruptive Mr Trump and the more diplomatic one has been resolved، or will be. Mr Trump may hate the establishment but he needs it to enact much of his agenda – and most politicians on Capitol Hill face re-election in 2018. The big issues of the coming months – the budget، tax، healthcare، immigration، trade – are all political battlegrounds، both inside the Beltway and beyond it. Tuesday felt like Washington getting a little of its breath back.