By MARSHA MERCER
Give President Donald Trump credit. He showed Tuesday night he can deliver an inaugural address.
So it was 40 days after his inauguration – but who’s counting?
The bullying, snarling Trump was gone; in his place was a well-behaved guard dog, one that wants to please and is, literally, good with children.
“My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clean water and rebuild our military infrastructure,” Trump said in his first speech to a joint session of Congress.
Except for the last bit about rebuilding the military, the remark could have come from a Democratic president, as could Trump’s call for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending – something that had Democrats and usually cost-conscious Republicans on their feet, applauding.
Outsider no more, Trump placed himself squarely in the line of Republican presidents. He echoed George W. Bush -- “Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” Trump said – and cited Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.
Does any of this matter? For this president at this moment, yes.
Asked on Fox & Friends the other day to grade his presidency so far, Trump gave himself an A for achievement and effort but a C or C-plus for messaging or communications. He was determined to exceed expectations in the speech -- admittedly not a high bar. He has historically low approval ratings for a new president.
On Tuesday night, he provided a glimpse of someone who may become more than an angry cartoon character with orange hair. He showed he can curb his insults and stick to his text. He was light on troublesome specifics and heavy on morning in America.
For one night, anyway, the man of I, I, I discovered the small words that bring people together: we, us and our.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” he said. “And every problem can be solved and every hurting family can find healing and hope.”
Trump also orchestrated a long, heart-rending moment of mourning in America when he recognized Carryn Owens, the teary widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, one of Trump’s guests in the balcony. Her husband was killed last month in a counter-terrorism operation in Yemen.
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said, leading a prolonged standing ovation, during which tears soaked the grieving widow’s face.
For someone who prizes himself on being unpredictable, the speech was notable for its normalcy. There were no attacks on the news media or judges and no embrace of Putin and Russia.
“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump said, urging Republicans and Democrats to unite behind his emerging agenda. The speech was vague enough that everyone could hear what they wanted. Some congressional Republicans thought Trump was endorsing the House leadership’s plan for health care reform; others thought not.
“Home run,” House Speaker Paul Ryan gushed about the speech. Congressional Democrats, critical of the lack of detail, were restrained in their critiques, although Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, issued a one-word statement reacting to Trump’s address. It read: “Resist.”
And Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said, “For those Americans looking for a clear and forward-looking agenda, tonight’s speech raised more questions than it answered. I believe the President missed an opportunity to begin to reach out beyond his political base to all Americans.”
But Warner also said: “I have long supported investing to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and if President Trump is willing to work in a bipartisan fashion we can accomplish that goal.”
Warner is right. Trump’s haziness can’t last; he will propose a federal budget in a couple of weeks that will make his values clear. Whether he can maintain his bipartisan tone and composure as negotiations proceed on issues where he’s opposed will be a test. Democrats also face a test whether they can present alternatives and become more than the Party of No.
“We are one people with one destiny,” Trump declared near the end of his speech.
Maybe and maybe not. It will take more than one well-crafted speech to change the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
(C) 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.