Trump’s State of the Union (ish) speech tonight was his best yet, and the first Trump speech (unlike the Inaugural Address and the convention speech) that stands reasonably well even without a steep discount for “well, it’s Trump.” And he hit notes that are outside his comfort zone, barreling out of the gate with a riff against anti-Semitism and the Olathe, Kansas shooting. But there were still some cringeworthy Trumpist moments, like his rant about keeping companies from leaving America (applauded, grudgingly, by Bernie Sanders), as well as the usual applause overkill that is endemic in these speeches. And as much as I loathe the whole spectacle (in fairness, a Reagan legacy) of citizens-as-props in the gallery, Trump’s ode to a disabled college student was hard to resist, and the focus on the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens (killed in the raid in Yemen on Trump’s watch) was maybe the most real, raw emotional moment I can recall in a presidential speech, as she was visibly struggling to hold it together on camera before a grateful nation.
So, in an Administration that has often been its own worst enemy in communications – and often as a direct result of the president’s own words – Trump mostly stayed out of trouble tonight. But the message on policy was more mixed. The good news was Trump’s focus on repealing and replacing Obamacare and confirming Gorsuch and his unexpectedly vivid endorsement of school choice, as well as endorsement of deregulation and energy production. The mixed news is his advocacy of more defense spending (which is needed, but probably not at the levels projected by his budget proposal). The bad news is the invocation of a trillion-dollar Trumpulus (by far the most public embrace of the trillion-dollar pricetag as a totem), the coded appeals to détente with Putin (in the reference to “new friends”), and the threats of a trade war. And the most ambiguous news, given the pre-speech leaks, is where Trump is really headed on immigration.
I wonder sometimes whether we will even still use “presidential” as an adjective after Trump, but tonight was about as close to genuinely presidential as we’re likely to see from him. The hard work ahead will be in the hands of Congress.