As Donald Trump waited for the presidential limo to draw out of the White House portico and bear him to Congress he appeared to be mouthing lines from the big speech he was shortly to deliver. If he was nervous, who could be surprised? He had some ground to make up.
Earlier in the day, he had done something really uncharacteristic when he told Fox Television that not everything about his first forty days had gone well. “In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C+,'” he said. Thus we heard the notion that some recalibration was in order. What better moment to do that than when 40 million people are tuned in?
And that is what he attempted. It is ritual events such as these that remind us that the person who occupies the Oval Office has somehow to be both Prime Minister and President. That means navigating the partisan chasms in Washington but also being a leader for all Americans. But many Americans have so far rejected Trump as their president, and vociferously so.
He thus eschewed the “American carnage” dystopia of his inaugural address and reached for something more inspiring. “Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope,” he offered in a rousing climax to the address. “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream. Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.”
It was dicy to declare, as he did moments later, that “the time for small thinking is over” and “the time for trivial fights is behind us”. That was a bit like his recent call on journalists to stop using anonymous sources. As if fight-by-Twitter and propaganda-without-fingerprints were not his specialities. Indeed giggles at that were audible in the room - and, indeed, all across Twitter.
Partly, he knows his audience. This was neither the red-capped fans at the inauguration nor the red-meat radicals who lauded him at the CPAC conference last week. Here were lawmakers and, beyond, folk in their front rooms, some fans, many not. Most of his most divisive comments come when he departs from speeches prepared for him. He mostly did not do that and his senior aides were able to put down their heartburn tablets.
Many of the old themes of his campaign remained, including his calls to rebuild the country’s rickety infrastructure and dump Obamacare. Never mind that no one knows where the money will come from for either project. Trump said his goal on health is to find reforms that “expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare”. He appeared to endorse plans to replace Obamacare drawn up by Paul Ryan, the House speaker standing right behind him.
Trump threw down the gauntlet to Democrats, exhorting them to end the recalcitrance that their progressive grassroots supporters are demanding and work with Republicans to find a way out of the stand-off on healthcare. “Why not join forces and finally get the job done and get it done right?” he asked. It was a fair request, if you agree that Obamacare as it exists is in trouble.
A few of the lies of the campaign survived too, like the notion that coal can be king in America again. And he remains caught in the the fantasy that he won the election by a landslide. “The people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first ... because only then, can we truly make America great again”.
Those that did vote for him were once united, perhaps. Though with his approval rating sinking like a rock, even some of them began to lose the faith almost as soon as he entered the Oval Office. As for the country as a whole, Trump’s election has created a land of fevered disunity.
Again, awareness of this may have sunk in. It is why he chose to open by directly addressing the shooting of two Indian nationals in Kansas City and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, tragic events, he offered, that, “remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms”.
It presumably also explains a big zig on immigration. He said asked Congress to work on immigration reform, implicitly acknowledging that throwing people out of the country and dividing families is not the only away to address the country’s immigrant conundrums and that giving some of those who are undocumented hope of becoming legal might be better, smarter and fairer.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” he said. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
But then came the utterly disconcerting zag - his call for a unit in the department of Homeland Security called VOICE or Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. That drew not giggles but groans as the purpose of it would be to highlight instances where immigrants have committed crimes against American citizens. Thus we understand that Trump’s instinct to criminalise all immigrants is not washed away. As for that wall - work would begin on it soon, he asserted.
There was the undercurrent all through of putting ‘America First’, for example on trade. “My job is not to represent the world my job is to represent the United States of America,” he said. And part of that was his suggestion that immigration reform should also mean a pivot towards a system of attracting skilled and educated immigrants and not the poor or lower-skilled.
Trump was more measured, for certain. Lacerating the media was not his focus, for once. But he was also taking care to honor the wishes of those who voted for him. That may be to his credit, but it is unlikely to help him achieve that thing that eluded Barack Obama before him: a return of at least some degree of political comity and unity of purpose in Washington or in America. Nor was it a speech powerful enough to draw grassroots Democrats back from the barricades.