President Donald Trump ditched his trademark tough talk Tuesday and extended an olive branch to Democrats, former foes and minorities in his first address to a joint session of Congress.
He kicked off his 62-minute speech celebrating Black History Month and condemning vandalism of Jewish Community Centers throughout the country, acknowledging that the United States has work to do to achieve stronger civil rights for all Americans. It was a theme he returned to as he called on Congress to pass a bill to fund “school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” naming education “the civil rights issue of our time.”
He took yet another victory lap early on by crowing about the movement of forgotten Americans who swept him into the White House, but he did it with more decorous language in this decidedly stuffier venue than those he frequented on the campaign trail.
Several times throughout his remarks he implored Democrats and Republicans to work together, at one point making this plea:
“My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.”
And in a line that just as easily could have been uttered by Democratic presidents, should Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders have won the 2016 election instead, he said, “We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.”
Although he reminded his audience that construction of a southern border wall will soon begin to guard against drugs and crime, he asked Congress to pass “positive” immigration reform by looking to Canada and Australia for inspiration in developing a “merit-based immigration system.”
He softened his “America First” approach a touch, explaining that the United States simply should spend less trying to rebuild other countries instead of its own infrastructure and needs more equitable trade, adding: “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of anymore.”
In a proposal that Democrats are certain to like more than Republicans, he said:
To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital –- creating millions of new jobs.
He did, however, enjoy hearty Republican applause for his rejoinder demanding that the guiding principle of that effort is to “Buy American and hire American.”
In the biggest moment of the night, Trump paused to address the widow of slain Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was recently killed in a military raid in Yemen. A teary-eyed Carryn Owens received a nearly two-minute standing ovation.
Since taking office, Trump has greatly revised his commentary that critics took as a leap toward American retreat, saying in Tuesday's address instead that “our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world.”
While never mentioning Russia, he alluded to his efforts to reset that relationship by reminding his audience that the United States is now friendly with former foes and “is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.”
In what was a largely positive, optimistic speech as White House officials previewed for several days, the president's punchiest and most negative words were directed at Obamacare, which he termed an imploding disaster. He laid out the five points he hopes any replacement bill will include as:
- Guaranteed coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions
- Tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts to purchase coverage
- Additional flexibility for states on Medicaid
- Legal reforms for doctors
- Competitive national marketplace
And he didn't miss an opportunity to take aim at the media, but he took just one brief shot. It was near the end of his remarks, when he described a Homeland Security-led effort to create an office for victims of immigrant crimes.
His contention was that the press has ignored those crimes.