In First Address to Congress, President Aims to Temper Tone

By David Cruz

It was an opportunity for the president to be presidential, to pull from the tumult of his first month in office a tone that was more hopeful and unifying. And right at the top, it looked like he was striking just that kind of conciliatory tone.

“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path towards civil rights and the work that still remains to be done,” he told a joint session of Congress. “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”

Seton Hall University professor Matt Hale, said that if part of the mission yesterday was to appear presidential, to that extent, the speech was a success?

“Absolutely. I mean it was a really low bar,” he said. “No court’s going to overturn anything he said last night, but he stepped over the low bar that he set. He certainly changed the tone.”

But, for others, particularly Democrats, there was skepticism. The devil, they say, is in the details, and from their perspective, the president’s speech was the same bitter wine served in a new flask, like his renewed call for an immigration crackdown.

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars and make our communities safer for everyone,” continued the president. “We want all Americans to succeed but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders. For that reason we will soon begin construction of a great, great wall along our southern border. As we speak tonight we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy was pleased with the tone shift but warned against the style points exceeding the policy points. “In the category of looking more presidential it’s a step in the right direction,” he assessed. “Again, I don’t know which Donald Trump to believe. The fact of the matter is that if you look at the substance of what he was talking about last night, it’s still not substance, in my opinion, that is consistent with what’s right for America. That doesn’t go away, no matter how good you look in the suit, no matter how well you read from the teleprompter. You’ve got a substantive crisis here in the White House.”

Republicans, on the other hand, in control of the Congress and the White House, seemed pleased with their man’s performance. Republicans were as generous with their applause as Democrats were reserved. They’re hoping that the president can right a ship that has been sailing on stormy waters since he took office.

“I would hope that with modern-day technology there’s a better way to do surveillance along the border without having to spend a billion dollars on a wall,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciaterelli, “So, my hope is they’ll continue to look at that. On immigration, I think that they’re doing what people ask, which is if there are people in this country illegally and they have committed a felony or have been caught drunk driving, it’s time for federal action.”

As for what Democrats should take away from the speech?

“I think Democrats have to see what comes next,” suggested Hale. “I think we all do. It’s nice to have a different tone. It’s nice to have a little less screaming and we’ll see what happens. But it’s still a long way to go before we get to policy.”

It’s probably still a little too early to call it a reboot, but the president’s mission of putting the focus on policy over personality was welcomed as a change from the bellicosity that has dominated the national discourse up to now. But, as one Republican said today, he’s only a tweet away from changing the tone — again.