Everything about a presidential address to a joint session of Congress is staged to make a president look powerful. From the arrival of the dignitaries, announced by the Sergeant at Arms, to the “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!” to the almost-always-awkward “response” from the opposition. It’s all part of a grand, political tradition that puts as much attention possible on the power of the presidency.
So is the immediate aftermath of the speech, when members of Congress fill Statuary Hall just off the House floor in the Capitol to talk to reporters and establish the various partisan narratives of what just occurred. On Tuesday, after President Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress, Republicans called the address great. This is the Trump they want; a president focused on policy instead of unending feuds with an unending list of enemies waged from the Oval Office one tweet at a time.
Democrats seemed a little caught off guard that Trump, a president they have very little political or personal respect for, could deliver a speech that surprised a lot of people by … sounding like a political speech. Indeed, anyone hoping for another clownish or unpresidential public performance seemed a little disappointed.
“It wasn’t one of his crazier speeches,” Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told ABC News.
Sen. Roger Wicker, Republican from Mississippi, told C-SPAN in Statuary Hall that the speech was better than Trump’s inaugural and his convention speech.
“I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t get a bump out of this,” Wicker said.
From a policy standpoint, it was a very consistent speech for the president. Trump promised to be very tough on undocumented immigrants, to cut taxes, to cut spending on things Republicans dislike, like the EPA; to raise spending on things Republicans like, like defense; to create huge new infrastructure projects; to look America’s trade partners in the eye and demand a better deal.
It was the speech a traditional Republican president would give, in the traditional way a Republican president would give one, in the Trump era. That excited Republicans who have had to suffer through bad week after bad week at the White House. (Russia, of course, is expected to continue to provide bad weeks for the administration even after the speech that went well, optics-wise.)
But Trump is the president, and he’s not traditional. And what he’s promising to do is very challenging for the Republican Party. Despite the fact that Republicans won everything, the party is still very fractured, and it’s not clear that Trump can be the one to unite it. That could be problematic as the party attempts to take advantage of the win Trump brought them. Obamacare, which Republicans want gone but can’t agree on how to replace, is a prime example.
Trump showed Tuesday that the traditions designed for decades to make the president look good can also make Trump look good. His message is resonant. But nothing in the speech showed that the GOP can actually take advantage of a Trump that doesn’t get in his own way for at least one evening.