President Donald Trump’s masterful performance during last night’s joint-congressional address may finally force Democrats to acknowledge that they lost the 2016 elections. His ominous Inaugural Address in January had the opposite effect, inciting Democratic opponents to proclaim: “Not my president.” The tweeter-in-chief only added fuel to the fire with his assorted un-presidential tweets and his counterproductive war on the media, allowing Democrats to play the role of guardians of the free press. Democratic senators responded to their riled-up base by slow-walking the confirmation of Trump cabinet nominees and calling for an investigation of Trump’s team and their connection to Russian officials. An ambitious Republican legislative agenda was in danger of derailing before it got out of the station.
What a difference a televised presidential address can make. Everything about the speech was impressive. Beginning with a reference to Black History Month, condemning the recent spike in anti-Semitic actions, and deploring the Kansas City hate crime assault on two Indian nationals who were in the U.S. on valid working permits, Trump affirmed his commitment to an inclusive America that finds room for diversity even while affirming a commitment to shared American values. The rapid pace and smooth delivery of the speech conveyed presidential resolve to fulfill his campaign promises. He forcefully defended the executive actions he has already taken and left no doubt that there was a new sheriff in town. In an unmistakable repudiation of President Obama, he proclaimed to the world that America was once again ready to lead and that the defeat of “radical Islamic terrorism” was a priority of his administration.
The speech was a skillful blending of policy specifics and big themes, a difficult balance to strike. Presidential addresses to Congress can easily succumb to the temptation to become laundry lists of legislative priorities, where the general themes of a presidency become obscured in the policy weeds. Trump provided just enough policy specifics, particularly regarding the replace component of his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. He stated his commitment to advancing this item of his legislative agenda without obscuring his broader theme: that it is time to put Americans first and that a renewed focus on rebuilding the country and employing citizens is the path to making America great again.
The intellectual appeal of the speech was fortified by the pathos of references to invited guests in the gallery: Megan Crowley, a Pompe Disease survivor who owes her life to her father’s entrepreneurial drive in finding a drug to combat the disease; Denisha Merriweather, a recent college graduate who was saved from almost certain academic failure by enrolling in a private school with the help of a tax credit scholarship program; four family members who had lost loved ones through the crimes of illegal immigrants; two widows and family members of policemen killed in the line of duty; and, most moving of all, Carryn Owens, widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator Ryan Owens, recently killed in an engagement to gather intelligence on terrorist threats.
While the speech strongly defended those parts of the Trump agenda that would primarily appeal to Republicans—replacing Obamacare, securing the U.S. border, cutting corporate taxes, and providing regulatory relief—it also provided overtures to Democrats to work with Republicans on some measures. Trump promised to emulate Dwight Eisenhower’s signature public works program, the building of the interstate highway system, by proposing a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement program. He pledged to work with Democrats and Republicans to make childcare more affordable and provide paid family leave for new parents. Somewhat surprisingly, Trump called for comprehensive immigration reform that would shift the focus of legal immigration from lower-skilled workers to a merit-based approach that would provide greater assurance that new immigrants would be financially self-supporting.
The presidential tone of Trump’s address will necessarily change Democratic calculations. Obstruction has appeared justifiable as long as Trump refuses to play the traditional role of President of the United States. But the gravitas of Trump’s speech has helped to identify the man with the office and forces the Democrats to respect the office even if they dislike the man. While they can continue to oppose him on the ground of principle when his agenda differs from theirs, they will be courting the ire of the American voter if they refuse to compromise on matters where common ground should be achievable. The uniformly listless response of congressional Democrats to Trump’s appeal to put aside “trivial fights” over small things may not bode well in the short term for bipartisan cooperation, but Trump’s speech altered the lay of the land, and Democrats will ignore this at their own peril.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.