Surprising Show of Confidence
March 2, 2017
president’s speech has been broadly, justly praised. Here, a look at
particular aspects of the joint session address, and why it had power.
First, the baseline accomplishment.
Much has been said in the press about the sin of normalizing
but with this speech—by being there at the podium in the august House
chamber, and operating capably and within established traditions and
boundaries—he normalized himself. He doesn’t need the favor anymore.
People watching would have had a
better opinion of him by the end of the speech than when they began. And those
who abhor Mr. Trump got a glimpse, for once, of what his supporters saw and see
CNN Van Jones
said—acutely, bravely, yet I think incorrectly—that Mr. Trump became
president during the speech. I think instead Mr. Trump was finally understood to
be president during the speech—by everyone, even those who oppose him and call
him illegitimate. That, for such a unique character, was achievement enough.
Second, it was a good speech. It
was clear and plain and at points had a surprising sweetness. He stuck to his
usual policy sternness and yet added rhetorical warmth. There was a lot of
braggadocio—“A new national pride is sweeping across our nation”—but
there was also something more important. To get to it I mention something that
is misunderstood about
The cliché is that Reagan’s
power was his optimism—he walked into the room with the sun’s rays dancing
on his shoulders, and that made everything better. That’s not true. Reagan
wasn’t precisely an optimist. He didn’t assume history unspooled each day in
the direction of improvement; he didn’t necessarily think the best thing would
happen. What was true was that Reagan was confident—in his own powers and
those of the American people. He was confident we could make the right decisions
and turn things around. People saw that confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic.
Confidence, in a president, is
important. Mr. Trump’s speech was confident. He rose politically by painting
an America in bleak decline, but here he insisted our problems are not
irreversible. “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every
problem can be solved. . . . The challenges we face as a nation are
great. But our people are even greater.”
It showed something like faith, and
was powerful. This is one of the things people need, the sense that if we hold
together and back the right plans we can get the arrows on the graph going
There was a heartening plainness.
Mr. Trump told a story of meeting with officials and workers from
“They proudly displayed five of their magnificent motorcycles, made in the
USA, on the front lawn of the White House.” He asked them how they were doing.
“They told me—without even complaining, because they have been so mistreated
for so long that they’ve become used to it—that it’s very hard to do
business with other countries, because they tax our goods at such a high
rate.” One country, they said, taxed their motorcycles at 100%. “They
weren’t even asking for a change. But I am. . . . I am not going to
let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of any
Mr. Trump recast his second,
forthcoming executive order on immigration as motivated by prudence and a desire
to protect: “It is not compassionate but reckless to allow uncontrolled entry
from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” He spoke of “our friends and
allies in the Muslim world.” If he’d spoken this way early on, the first
order would not have caused the uproar it did.
On ObamaCare’s repeal and
replacement, the key phrase was “stable transition.” That appears to mean: If you now have coverage and previously lacked it, or if you’ve
been forced onto a new plan and fear losing it, we’re going to spend the money
it takes to protect you.
This will not be unpopular. The
American people have watched for a generation as their federal government
half-ruined the American health-care system. They won’t find it unjust that
the government gives the victims of its efforts a break.
It was good that the president
began the speech damning bigotry of all kinds: “We are a country that stands
united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.” This is not
a hard thing to do rhetorically, yet is always important and necessary, because
it reminds everyone in this fractious, bubbling, stressed and many-cultured
country that we owe each other respect and regard, not only tolerance but
affection. We won’t continue as a people unless we get this right.
The president has taken to doing
this lately. Why did he resist so long? Maybe in part because a man who believes
himself unbiased will find it grating that others insist he personally,
publicly, repeatedly oppose the ugly isms. Maybe he feels he has nothing to
prove and suspects bowing to the demand is tantamount to conceding that he does.
But Mr. Trump did have things to prove, because of the views of a highly vocal
sliver of his supporters. In any case, presidents should say the right things.
There is something the leaders of
populist, nationalist movements here and in Europe do not understand. They are
not powerful, because they are perceived, on some level, by some people, to be
racist or narrow or anti-Semitic. They fail to win power—they have low
electoral ceilings, or fail to win half the votes—because of this perception.
It doesn’t help them, it kills them. Because the majority of people don’t
like the smell of sulfur.
Nationalists should actively and
publicly reject and rebuke the forces of darkness. “We need them to win”?
No, they’re the reason you lose. They’re not numerous, they’re only loud.
Draw a line between them and you, raise your ceiling, get yourself a chance at
winning. Which, if you are serious about your programs, vision and philosophy,
is the point.
Mr. Trump took a lot of steam out
of the Democrats. By the time he movingly lauded the beautiful young widow of a
Navy SEAL, the faces of the Democrats on the floor had turned glum and grim.
They were sinking in their seats. Politicians know when a politician has scored.
Republicans, on the other hand,
were buoyed. As they came to understand the speech was not a disaster but a
triumph, they got more enthusiastic and happy-looking. As desperate as they are
not to do anything, because to decide is to divide, they are also desperate to
do something. Maybe they can with Chief Crazy Horse. All the polls will show a
bump for the president. They’ll see it as a bump for the party.
It marks, if not a new chapter, a
turning of the page. It suggests Mr. Trump may have a capacity to grow into the
office, which is so surprising to me as a thought that I hardly want to commit
it to paper. But here it is, in the paper.