Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night was indeed, as has been widely remarked, presidential. Sticking firmly to script, the president laid out a broad center-right agenda while striking a tone of relative sobriety and optimism. It was a speech, in delivery and substance, befitting the occasion.
Tuesday’s address was as robust a presentation of Trump’s agenda as we have yet seen. Trump argued that government policies had badly served working- and middle-class Americans — had even lost sight of their needs — and called for a reorientation of the federal government’s agenda. So, on immigration, the president reiterated his commitment to an enforcement-first policy that aims to remove criminal aliens from the country and ultimately to reconfigure the country’s immigration system to emphasize higher-skilled immigration. Likewise, the president endorsed not just repealing the Affordable Care Act, as some congressional Republicans want to do, but replacing it. Errors of omission and commission, however, may undermine these laudable goals. Creating a new bureaucracy to publicize crimes committed by immigrants as Trump advocated would serve no good purpose. And while Trump provided guidance about a general direction on health care — a tax credit, Health Savings Accounts, etc. — he did nothing to help congressional Republicans resolve their differences.
One of the strongest portions of the speech came when the president touted tax reform and his early efforts to roll back economic over-regulation, and promised more to come (his passage on FDA reform was particularly strong). This general thrust no doubt has something to do with recent buoyancy in the stock market.
There was more in this vein that conservatives could applaud, but not the protectionism. The president touted pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, took his rote swipes at NAFTA and the WTO, and falsely claimed that most of our trading partners are using their tax codes to take advantage of us. When the president says, “I believe strongly in free trade, but it also has to be fair trade,” it’s hard not to hear it as an excuse for ill-considered government interventions that have failed in the past to save declining industries from competition while imposing large costs on everyone else.
No one will mistake it for a limited-government speech. Trump suggested $1 trillion, from a combination of public and private sources, be invested in a “national rebuilding.” A lot depends on how this initiative is actually crafted, but the history of showy federal infrastructure programs is not a happy one. Trump is also proposing a federal paid-maternity-leave policy that could end up, once again depending on the specifics, tilting the playing field against families with stay-at-home parents.
The proposed $54 billion increase to defense spending is much more welcome, but it’s not clear how all of this will add up. Any reflex toward fiscal responsibility will obviously have to be supplied by congressional Republicans.
No one will mistake it for a limited-government speech.
The president spent relatively little of his time on foreign policy, and most of his comments were familiar tropes about American leadership. But from Trump, whose foreign policy has seemed erratic, those nods to the conventional are reassuring. At the same time that he called on NATO allies to “meet their financial obligations,” he restated America’s support for the alliance. That is a much-needed, and very welcome, expression of presidential support for a pillar of our foreign policy. Trump also repeated his commitment to “demolish and destroy” the Islamic State, although the plan to do it will be worked out later.
Telling absences from Trump’s address — any social conservatism, for example, including any defense of religious liberty — are another reminder that Trump’s worldview diverges in significant ways from that of traditional conservatives. His agenda will continue to be a mixed bag of the wholly commendable, the completely misconceived, and proposals and impulses that are somewhere in between. He did himself and the party a lot of good, though, by presenting all of this last night in a manner worthy of a president of the United States.