Donald Trump’s first address to Congress took on the expected issues in trademark Trump style: trade, immigration, jobs, healthcare, the Supreme Court, terrorism, the military, and foreign policy.
The speech was largely met with thunderous applause on the Republican side of the aisle, and with silence by the Democrats. In general, it seemed light on vitriol…characteristic Trump content, but presenting a stark contrast with the much-maligned “dark tone” of his inaugural address.
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The over-arching theme of the night, from an economic standpoint, was his pledge to rebuild the American economy, through putting our economic interests first. Libertarians and classical liberals, however, may be alarmed by Trump’s new spending proposals.
Trump pledged to preside over a major infrastructure spending package, promising a USD $1 trillion national investment to revolutionize our roads and rails, ports and bridges, airports and pipelines.
On other themes, Trump veered to indulgent nationalism, particularly when he promised that he would build the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline with American workers, American companies, and American steel.
Perhaps to libertarians, his most troubling proposal was to “rebuild” the American military: proposing $54 billion in new spending. He also, however, noted the need for our partners and allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to begin to shoulder their “fair share” of their own national defense, and discussed the imperative of being more prudent with use of American military force in the future.
He made the case for his controversial immigration and refugee policies, noting that the vast majority of perpetrators of terrorism attacks since 9/11 have come from outside of the United States. Trump called upon the American public to recognize the high costs to taxpayers and low-wage workers posed by unchecked illegal immigration, and promised to speed up deportation of illegal immigrants with criminal records, while also providing more opportunities for skilled workers to gain entry to the US.
He also made a reasonable case for calling into question Obama’s eight years of immigration policy, who largely refused to enforce America’s immigration law. Trump’s speech had the ring of truth when he alleged that without the rule of law we will degenerate into chaos and anarchy, and called for fair and reasonable enforcement of our current immigration laws, while guaranteeing prompt construction of the Mexican border wall.
Advocates for educational reform will be pleased by his rhetoric on education. He deemed school choice the path to advancement for “millions of African-American and Latino children…These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, or home school that is right for them.”
Trump called upon the Senate to give fair consideration to Neil Gorsuch, his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch has faced determined Democratic opposition in the Senate, where there have been threats to filibuster his nomination.
Most political analysts agreed that it was a marked improvement for Trump. Last night appeared to be the first step of the great transition from campaign trail Trump (1.0 let’s say), to Donald Trump 2.0…the president. Not “president-elect” but president. His humor and charm are apparent, and they may indeed help him win over new converts.
The emotional highlight of the night occurred when Trump honored Carryn Owens, the widow of Chief Special Warfare Operator Ryan Owens, who was killed during a recent raid of an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen. Trump noted that the length of the applause offered up for Owens likely “broke a record.”
Trump is absolutely right when he suggests that the priority of the American government is to put American interests first. It is curious that this is controversial to the American Left. But he needs to temper his barely veiled nationalism with the realization that many libertarians and mainstream Republicans are skeptical of some of his economic proposals.
In general Trump’s speech is not likely to change many minds within the Democratic party establishment, but it is likely to do some good in softening his image with the American public, and encouraging Democrats to work with him, which a recent poll indicated was favored by 73% of the American public.
Trump now faces the task of working his proposals through a Congress where Republicans control the house by a healthy margin, but face a challenging 52-48 split in the Senate. He will have his work cut out for him.