It was a different President Trump who spoke to Congress Tuesday night, at least in presentation and possibly in substance, in light of comments he made before the joint session. It’s unwise to draw firm conclusions based on one speech, but it’s fair to say that Trump seemed presidential. That’s worth noting.
There were frequent misstatements, as fact-checkers noted, but no histrionics, no crass insults, no demonizing of those who question his priorities and his leadership. Instead, Trump spoke about what he wanted to do and appealed for help. In that way it was an unremarkable speech for a president to deliver.
But it wasn’t just presentation that was different. So was the substance – not only in the hour-plus address, but in comments leading up to it. If they are serious, they mark a radical departure from the extreme positions he has taken for more than a year.
Start with immigration. After more than a year of insisting on the urgent need to deport millions of foreigners who are here illegally, Trump on Tuesday told television news anchors that he was open to granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.
That’s a seismic shift, one that puts him in the company of predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who proposed or endorsed sensible immigration packages, only to have them shouted down as “amnesty” by denizens of the far right. Maybe Trump, if he is serious, will have better luck.
Trump also appears to backing away from the difficult-to-impossible task of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Despite its real defects, the law has given millions of people access to health care they didn’t previously have, sometimes providing lifesaving treatments. As many Republican leaders understand, it’s a hard thing to take away.
The president now says he supports the provision that bars insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing illnesses. He also wants to find a way – perhaps through tax credits and Health Savings Accounts – to give Americans a way to purchase private health insurance.
How well that would work remains unknown but the metamorphosis here is even greater than on immigration. That is true not simply because of Trump’s long-professed enmity for the Affordable Care Act, but for decades of Republican opposition to the notion that it’s good policy to ensure that the country’s people have access to health care. That should have been obvious; what should have been debatable was how to achieve it. Because of Obamacare, however flawed it may be, that change may have occurred.
Trump continues to push a $1 trillion infrastructure program that he says will help to improve the country’s roads, bridges, airports and other facilities, while putting thousands of Americans to work.
Few would argue that the country’s infrastructure doesn’t need the upgrade, but how Trump will pay for this and his other projects remains uncertain. Economists have said his plans would explode the federal budget deficit, an approach to budgeting that has long been anathema to Republicans.
Other proposals are more troubling, including his pitch for a huge increase in defense spending that would be funded by gutting other departments and operations, including the Environmental Protection Agency. It will be an appropriately difficult program to get through Congress.
So, yes, the speech and other comments suggest something different is happening.
The question is whether these developments truly represent a new direction or if it is transitory, to be buried by a blizzard of tweets. But it’s hard not to hope that Trump is learning a couple of important lessons: that governing is different from campaigning and that getting things done in this country requires compromise.