Trump Praised for Presidential Tone, Unifying Theme

Trump Praised for Presidential Tone, Unifying Theme
Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP
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It was a scene not witnessed in years.

Democrats sat on one side of the House chamber, inherently skeptical of the president and tightly holding their applause. Republicans were on the other, energized and gleeful, standing in ovation at nearly every turn -- even for expensive proposals they might have opposed under a different president.

When it was over, GOP lawmakers rose to laud the president as he made his way out of the chamber. Democrats, now the opposition party in Washington, bolted for the exits. In the hallways afterward, Republicans sang Donald Trump’s praises. Not only was he presidential, somber and in line, however loosely, with their legislative agenda -- he also put Democrats in something of a bind.

A month into his presidency and in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump struck an unusually presidential tone. While reaffirming his hard-line pledges on immigration -- even proposing a program called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement -- and “America first” rhetoric, he also included policy items Democrats like. The GOP president called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, for example, along with lowering the cost of prescription drugs. He praised paid family leave, “clear air” and “women’s health.” And he made it difficult for moderate Democrats up for re-election in two years in states he won to withhold their applause. 

Indeed, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin cheered the president at several turns, rising to his feet at the mention of “make America great again” and “radical Islamic terrorism.” Other fellow red state Democrats, including Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana, joined in at the mention of jobs. 

“I like this tone very much,” Manchin told RCP after the speech. “I like this tone.”

Dozens of Democratic women wore white in honor of women’s suffrage, and most of their colleagues wore blue buttons on their lapels in support of the Affordable Care Act that the president wants to repeal. Several, including Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, wore red buttons with white question marks, symbolizing questions they have about Trump’s tax returns and alleged ties between his campaign and Russia.

Democrats did stand and applaud the president when he spoke about infrastructure spending and paid leave, but generally stayed in their seats. Some, like Crowley, offered tepid applause throughout. But others, including Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the newly minted deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, sat stone-faced for almost the entire speech. Several, including Ellison, former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, remained seated when Speaker Paul Ryan introduced Trump.

Though they weren’t enthusiastic about the president, Democrats held their animosity in check for the most part -- except for audible laughter when Trump mentioned draining the swamp. But when Trump directly called on lawmakers to take action, including swiftly confirming his Supreme Court nominee, not a single Democratic senator applauded. 

Five weeks after Trump delivered an inauguration address widely panned as dark and partisan, Democrats admitted that his first congressional address hit calmer notes. But the bar, as New York Rep. Crowley put it, is low. “I think the devil is in the details,” he said afterward. 

"His tone was not Trumpian. It was a softer tone. And that's a good thing. He gave a speech, not a tweet. That's a good thing,” said Vermont Rep. Peter Welch. “[But] the policies are still the very hard-edge Trumpian policies." 

Republicans, meanwhile, found a lot to like. More than that, they came away breathing a sigh of relief. “It was focused, disciplined and subdued,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent. “It was remarkably uneventful, in a good way. The inauguration speech was much more inward looking and darker. This speech was much more, at least attempted to be, much more unifying. I thought the tone, the temperament was good.”

The tone made some items easier to swallow for Republicans. Some conservatives loath to support government spending came away with positive reviews.

"I don't know any Republican that doesn't fix their roof when their roof has a leak in it. It just makes sense that America’s infrastructure is falling apart. It's not going to fix itself, and it actually takes money to do that. But it's an investment -- it's not spending," said Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, known in Congress for his hard-line immigration stance. "And when you invest in infrastructure, you put a lot of people to work. And those people put money back into the economy, and the government gets money back. So I think it's foolish for us to ignore our crumbling infrastructure because it's going to cost American taxpayers a lot more."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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