Analysis

Same Trump policies appear, but dressed in new 'presidential' packaging for Congress

Two starkly different phrases from major political addresses by U.S. President Donald Trump have bookended the first 40 days of his presidency.

From 'American carnage' to spiritual 'renewal': Trump's lofty message reaches across aisle

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

Take note, historians: It took just over a month to go from "American carnage" to a full-blown "renewal of the American spirit."

The two phrases from major political addresses by U.S. President Donald Trump bookended the first 40 days of his presidency — the former colouring his inauguration day depiction of a nation in shambles, the latter delivered Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress.

The president's latest remarks sounded almost conciliatory, appealing beyond his most loyal base and across the political aisle to Democratic opponents.

Yet there were few surprises in the hour-long address.

U.S. President Donald Trump is introduced to a joint session of Congress 0:57

One curve ball came when he mentioned "real and positive immigration reform". The shift — which could be rooted in a "merit-based" system he suggested might be modelled after Canada and Australia — was the first time the U.S. public heard such talk after his hardline rhetoric through the campaign.

Another remarkable sight came when fiscally hawkish Republicans applauded the concept of "paid family leave," something that might have seemed unthinkable a year ago.

Tonally, Trump's speech in the House veered away from his doom-laden inaugural address. Aided by a Teleprompter, he shared an uplifting vision during what NBC's Tom Brokaw described as "easily the most presidential" performance of his political career.

The president says people who want to enter the U.S. should be able to support themselves financially 1:29

"Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice in an unbroken chain all the way down to the president. That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world," Trump told legislators, as Republicans stood to applaud and Democrats largely sat on their hands.

Trump promised the country was verging on "a new chapter of American greatness."

Mostly, his State of the Union-like address served as a message to the Republican-dominated Congress about the president's conservative priorities: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, taxation reform, lowering regulation, building up the military and cracking down on illegal immigration.

U.S. President Donald Trump is applauded while delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

In that respect, it accomplished what it needed to, said Mark Harkins, a Congressional scholar with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

"Members of Congress now know exactly where the president's coming from. They don't know the details, but this is not a details speech. It's written to go beyond just the chamber to the American public."

Congress will be most put at ease by knowing "where the battle lines are going to be drawn," Harkins said.

The specifics about how Trump will achieve his agenda are the most burdensome part. The president this week directed the Office of Management and Budget to increase defence spending by $54 billion at the expense of non-defence program funding.

The U.S. president says he's going to make sure funds flow to repair U.S. infrastructure 0:49

Corporate and individual tax cuts are a major priority, for example.

"How do we pay for this?" Harkins asked. "He started going through this list of things he wants to improve, and I'm sitting here going, 'OK, well that comes out of your $54 billion; that comes out of the $54 billion.'"

Harkins, who was also listening for what the president might omit, noted the absence of statements on foreign affairs or a role in combating climate change — perhaps intentionally so, given the president's "America first" priorities.

"My job is not to represent the world," Trump said. "My job is to represent the United States of America."

The U.S. president talks about pulling out of the TPP, and his recent roundtable meeting with PM Justin Trudeau 0:35

Most frustrating for Congress would have been for Trump to spend much effort during the prime-time address rehashing his accomplishments so far, or reliving his electoral-college win from November. Trump spent just under 11 minutes doing so.

That was an appropriate amount of time, said David Azerrad, an analyst with the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation. This was not a partisan screed, but neither is Trump an orthodox Republican, Azerrad said.

"Trump wants to work with both parties," he said. Whether Republicans will be across-the-board happy with Trump's proposals is less certain. A strong call to reform taxation, replace Obamacare and a defence of the controversial "school choice" movement and voucher programs all come "straight out of the Republican playbook."

Democratic members of Congress wear white to honour the women's suffrage movement and support women's rights as U.S. President Donald Trump addressed a joint session on Tuesday night. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But calls for a $1-trillion infrastructure-spending package and the promise to fund paid family leave, "those are points where I do think Democrats might listen to him, because there's a lot there they could get behind," Azerrad said.

Still, liberal legislators who believe foreign-aid programs shouldn't be cut are bound to be troubled by the "clear nationalistic undercurrent" in Trump's address, said University of Michigan debate and speech analyst Aaron Kall, a co-author of I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugural Addresses of the Last Forty Years.

Kall believes Democrats might be skeptical of hints of an "immigration shift" in which "instead of taking in refugees," America adopts "a more self-interested immigration policy based on only bringing in people of higher skill."

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather on the first day of the new session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 3. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Appalled groans filled the chamber when Trump announced he would create a new Homeland Security office called VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement), which would highlight crimes committed against citizens by undocumented immigrants. It was the most negative reaction he got all night.

Where the president shone brightest was in his opening reflections on Black History Month, condemnation of a possibly hate-inspired attack in Kansas City and a rash of threats targeting Jewish centres, Kall said.

Most poignant to him was when Trump honoured Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, who was killed in the Yemen raid ordered by Trump. The sustained applause from the House was a "highlight," Kall said, despite the drama playing out behind the scenes with Owens's parents, who are demanding an investigation into whether ordering the operation was reckless, or if the intelligence gathered even proved fruitful.

Carryn Owens weeps as U.S. President Donald Trump applauds her husband, senior Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, who was killed in raid in Yemen 3:52

Whatever the case, the call-out proved Trump's capability of seizing on powerful emotional moments. More crucially, Kall said, it demonstrates the president can to stick to a script and adopt a milder tone that pivots to the centre.

"It's maybe a month late," he said, "but maybe it did happen."

Carryn Owens, left, widow of Senior Chief Petty Officer William 'Ryan' Owens, reacts as Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner, right, applaud after Owens was mentioned by President Trump. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong