Donald Trump delivered what is likely the most polished speech of his presidency, in his address to the joint session of Congress Tuesday.
Standing before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and military leaders, the famously unrestrained politician struck a strikingly diplomatic tone, steering clear of the personal attacks that defined his presidential campaign.
It was an opportunity to reset the chaotic start to his administration.
Gone was the dark tone that marked his inaugural address, replaced by optimism and pleas for bipartisan support.
“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” he said, in the opening of his hour-long speech.
But while his prime-time address wrapped his nationalistic approach to policy in more presidential prose, it’s unlikely to overcome the deep political divides that exist not only between parties, but also within his own party.
Republicans have united control for the first time in decades but do not agree about the specifics of long-promised plans to repeal Obamacare and revamp the tax code. The civil service is in not-so-quiet revolt. Weeks of protests and raucous town halls are putting renewed political pressure on lawmakers from both parties to resist his agenda.
The stakes are high not only in terms of policy but politics: If the GOP is unable to make good on years of election promises, they could enter the midterm elections in a far weaker position than expected.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, faces record low approval ratings – just 44 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Trump is nearing the end of big achievements he can enact by executive order, forcing him to rely on Congress to turn the bold promises of his campaign into actual achievements
He arrived at the Capitol in a blaze of accusations, enraging his opponents before he even entered the building.
In the 24 hours before his address, he blamed former President Obama for town hall protests and security leaks, called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “incompetent” and said his generals, not the commander in chief, were responsible for a military raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL.
Mr. Trump needed to use his prime-time address to show he could steady his flailing White House and focus on the difficult work required to pass his legislative agenda. And Republicans were desperate for a new direction.
So in his speech, he called on Washington to “work past the differences of party.”
The candidate who won the White House by taking a hard-line stance on immigration, seemed to express openness to a bipartisan immigration bill. The president whose administration spent much of its first weeks in office battling with the media, intelligence community, federal judiciary and even Hollywood celebrities asked for an end to “trivial fights.” And he condemned the anti-Semitic attacks and other hate crimes, saying the country was “united in condemning hate and evil.”
For House GOP leaders, the president came tantalizingly close to backing their plan to overhaul the tax code by imposing a new tax on imports while exempting exports. He appeared to lend support to the House Republican leaders’ plan for Obamacare, by embracing “tax credits” and health savings accounts.
His comments won praise from Republican leaders. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the speech a “home run.” Ryan’s Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, said the speech was “utterly disconnected from the cruel reality of his conduct.”
But on other issues, Trump offered barely a blueprint for his initiatives.
He repeated his campaign pledge to make a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, adding no new details to a proposal that’s sure to face fierce resistance from budget hawks. Big promises to make childcare more affordable, ensure paid family leave, invest in women’s health and a school choice-focused education bill were mentioned merely in passing.
He promised a massive expansion in military spending, even as he made no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan, where American troops are still stationed.
And he avoided commenting on U.S.-Russia relations, which sparked controversy even within his own party, making only a nebulous reference to an America “willing to find new friends.”
There was no discussion of how his administration would fund any of the new – and expensive – programs, putting him in direct conflict with a Republican Party that’s long focused on cutting the deficit.
“We will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American greatness began,” Trump said at the conclusion of his speech. “I am asking all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit. I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big and bold and daring things for our country.”