While the media seems to have a penchant for reporting everything President Donald Trump says, does or tweets with a breathlessness most people reserve national disasters or epic sporting upsets, there is very little the president does that is actually surprising.
His first State of the Union address Tuesday may be the exception.
Most people who aren’t avid Trump supporters manage their expectations about what comes out of the president’s mouth — or his Twitter handle — but like Trump or not, Tuesday’s speech had to leave many in his audience feeling hopeful that this next year might offer a marked improvement from the first.
That’s at least in part because Trump seemed to be trying to reclaim some of the policy territory that helped him secure the White House in the first place.
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Despite his populist rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump has governed — to the extent he has “governed” at all — like a generic Republican, filling a Supreme Court vacancy with a Federalist Society pick and his administration (after some initial failures) with mostly conventional appointments, and leaving much of the heavy-lifting to GOP congressional leaders. These efforts mostly have pleased establishment-type Republicans — not his base — and has ignored the coalition of working class whites — including two-time Obama voters — who brought him to power.
He tried to change that Tuesday, by offering some policy priorities for the coming year which enjoy far broader appeal.
Trump called for litany of popular domestic policy proposals that would make most Democrats proud: $1.5 trillion on infrastructure spending, reduced prescription drug prices, more vocational and job training, and paid family leave.
Granted, he was sketchy on the details, as is often the case in such addresses. But it’s telling that these are not traditionally initiatives prioritized by Republicans. They are, however, the kind of things many Trump voters — and plenty of Democrats — have been hoping to see.
Even Trump’s discussion of immigration reform, which renewed the call for a border wall and reductions in legal immigration, offered as its first pillar a pathway to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally by their parents. And it went further than most of the DACA proposals circulating around Congress, because it makes that path available to 1.8 million immigrants, as compared to the roughly 800,000 DACA recipients.
Whether Trump was extending an olive branch or borrowing a page from Bill Clinton’s book on triangulation remains to be seen. Maybe he was just looking for a temporary bump in approval ratings, which snap polls following the speech suggest he achieved.
Either way, it’s unlikely Democrats, whose collective behavior during the State of the Union was embarrassing even to liberal commentator Dana Milbank, will ever come to the table if Trump is on the other side.
That is not only to their detriment, but to the people they represent who would benefit from a lot of what Trump laid out.
And while plenty of liberal commentators decried Trump’s speech as “terrifying” or tried to claim that Trump used his remarks to call on the “tropes of 1950s-era nationalism,” with the exception of some platitudes about patriotism and honoring the flag, Trump mostly steered clear of his typical divisive rhetoric.
Perhaps most notably, Trump used his first State of the Union to do something he almost never does — turn positive attention on others and away from himself.
Indeed, his use of guests — from the parents of two young girls killed by MS-13 gang violence, to the all-American worker benefiting from the tax reform bill, to the Korean defector who fled an abusive regime on crutches — was nothing short of brilliant. These anecdotes are sure to outlast in the public memory any of the policy proposals offered Tuesday night.
A pleasantly surprising speech hardly means the president’s agenda in the year to come will be any different than it has in the past, especially with an intransigent Congress.
But it was nice for one night to imagine what a Trump presidency could look like — if only Trump were not at its helm.