The presidential Trump emerges, for a night

After a blustery start to his presidency, Trump delivered a speech to Congress that projected a more optimistic view of America's path forward. But Democrats remain concerned.

Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters
President Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017.

On the morning of his debut speech to Congress, Donald Trump awarded himself high marks as president – except on communication.

"In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C+," President Trump told Fox News.

Trump may well revise the grade, after delivering the most polished, optimistic address of his short political career on Tuesday night.

“This speech was a new face on the president that looked very presidential,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told the Monitor in the Capitol rotunda afterward.

After almost six weeks in office, Trump supporters hope he is hitting his stride and has learned from his early stumbles. The next phase of Trump’s crash course in public service now moves to Congress, where he will embark on the delicate task of trying to pass a budget, and legislation on health care, tax reform, and immigration.

Whether this proves to be the long-awaited pivot toward a more presidential Trump, or a rare night of polished oratory remains to be seen. And while even Democratic lawmakers and commentators agreed that the president showed a new face Tuesday, some offered a caveat: A more effective communicator of an unacceptable agenda makes Trump more dangerous.

Embedded in Trump’s agenda, Democrats warn, is the threat of mass deportations, the gutting of environmental protections, and the loss of health coverage for millions of newly insured low-income Americans.

For now, Trump is apparently allowing himself to linger in this presidential “moment,” and reportedly won’t sign a revised travel ban on Wednesday, as planned. The original order, drafted hastily and now on hold, temporarily barred travel to the US by citizens of seven largely Muslim countries and suspended Syrian refugee resettlement.

Trump did not discuss the travel ban in his speech Tuesday, or his reported willingness to allow millions of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants to stay in the US and work – a revival of campaign talk of a compromise on immigration.

'A message of unity and strength'

On its face, the content of Trump’s speech contained many of the touchstones of a typical State of the Union address. He spoke of healing and hope, and called for bipartisanship in the name of common national purpose.

And he began by condemning the recent vandalism and threats against Jewish targets, and the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas last week, following criticism that he was slow to speak out against such attacks.

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” Trump said.

It was also a message centered on policies that serve his controversial campaign theme of “America first,” including a major increase in defense spending, a pull-back from multilateral trade agreements, the border wall, and tax cuts for corporations and the middle class. He expressed support for NATO, but also signaled a retrenchment of America's role on the global stage.

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

In addition, Trump offered policies that play well across the aisle, such as a call for investment in infrastructure, paid family leave, and guaranteed access to health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions.

The speech won early high marks from the American public, with 7 in 10 Americans who tuned in saying it made them feel more optimistic about the country, according to a CNN poll.

Republicans hopeful, Democrats unmoved

Still, these are early days for the mercurial Trump, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether he can keep up the more presidential posture he adopted Tuesday night.

All through the campaign, as even supporters and family members urged him to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric, he insisted he could be “presidential.”

But he never quite got there, until now. His convention address came across as dark and dystopic; ditto his short inaugural speech, remembered for the phrase “American carnage.” Now his supporters have a more positive message to point to.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell points to a particular moment of “optimism and compassion” in Tuesday’s speech: “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing and hope.”

Some Democrats weren’t particularly moved by Trump’s message. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon dismissed his talk of clean air and water as “empty” words. He was also unimpressed by the president’s inclusive language.

“It’s just a rehash of everything we’ve heard before,” said Senator Merkley, one of the chamber’s most liberal members.

Democrats are in the minority on Capitol Hill, and they have pledged to do everything they can to block a Trump agenda that aims to undo key parts of President Obama's legacy. But Republicans are hopeful.

"Trump’s overall goal of the address was to instill in Congress the 'will to govern,' to compromise where possible in an effort to get things done on behalf of the American people," writes Mr. O'Connell in an email. "It's not an easy task in a broken, bipartisan town like Washington, D.C. But on this night, he succeeded."

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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