Donald Trump used the grandest stage of the presidency Tuesday night to rally the public around a series of policy priorities that focused on the economy and security instead of the strife that has hovered around his young administration.
In his debut address to a joint session of Congress, the new president struck an optimistic and ambitious tone as he touted the steps he’s taken to fulfill campaign promises to protect Americans, remove dangerous immigrants and improve health care.
It was Trump’s most “presidential” speech of his short political career, with several uplifting messages. Not once did he mention his election victory or attack real or perceived opponents, such as the media. Instead, he offered a forward-looking vision in a far more positive light than the unusually dark narrative about “American carnage” that characterized his inaugural address.
He started off by paying homage to racial diversity in opening lines that were intended to heal divisions that have been only too pronounced in the last month.
“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month,” he began, “we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
“The time for small thinking is over,” Trump said. “The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. The bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls. And the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action.”
As protesters rallied earlier outside the White House, Trump pushed his way through glad-handing lawmakers to the House of Representatives chamber podium at five minutes past 9 o’clock for the roughly hourlong speech, in which he recounted the promises he’d made and the promises he’d sought to keep.
Republicans enthusiastically embraced him, leaping to their feet for ovations and cheering. Democrats sat mostly in an icy silence, many with skeptical looks on their faces.
When Trump said he had begun to “drain the swamp,” Democrats tittered, faux-coughed and laughed.
Mixed with doses of populist rhetoric, the prime-time speech was aimed more at the millions of worried Americans watching on television and the internet than the lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices and diplomats sitting just feet from the president inside the U.S. Capitol.
“My job is not to represent the world,” Trump said. “My job is to represent the United States of America.”
He boasted about protecting American workers from competition overseas and taking a more aggressive stance against foreign governments by dropping the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He said tens of thousands of jobs would be created by reviving the construction of the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
He pledged to continue to oppose those who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed “our unbreakable alliance” with Israel. He championed plans to destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS, which he called a terrorism network that has “slaughtered Muslims and Christians” and struck fear around the world.
“We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” Trump said.
The president highlighted his executive orders on immigration, health care and the economy and cited new initiatives he plans to address in the coming months. Among them: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, spending on roads and bridges, keeping immigrants from entering the country illegally, streamlining regulations, improving workplaces and schools, and rewriting the tax laws.
“My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone,” he said.
Trump likened his work to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he called on Congress to strengthen the military, expand educational opportunities for children and approve legislation for $1 trillion in investment in the infrastructure of the United States – financed through both public and private capital, to build new roads, bridges, tunnels and airports.
“That was a home run,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “President Trump delivered a bold, optimistic message to the American people. We now have a government unified around a simple but important principle: Empowering the people — not Washington — is the way to build a better future for our country.”
While he was more optimistic than in his previous speeches, Trump also repeated more controversial themes from his campaign, including the crime rate in Chicago and his plans, first spelled out in an executive order in January, to create an office to help American victims of crimes committed by those here illegally.
The speech was Trump’s first to a formal assembly of Congress. Although widely regarded as his inaugural State of the Union address, presidents in their first years of office generally do not call it that.
It came at a difficult time for the new administration. Trump has been beset by allegations that his staff colluded with Russia, and one of his first executive orders, intended to slow immigration, has been blocked by an appeals court.
He’s struggled to keep the public on board. His approval rating, at just 44 percent, is a record low for a new president, and half of Americans say his early challenges suggest unique and systemic problems with his administration, according to a new poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
With Republicans now in control both the legislative and executive branches of government, Trump called on Congress to finally “repeal and replace” Obamacare.
“Obamacare is collapsing – and we must act decisively to protect all Americans,” Trump said. “Action is not a choice – it is a necessity.”
Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California were seen shaking their heads or giving the comments a dramatic thumbs down as Trump spoke.
But even the president’s own party is haggling over what to do with Obamacare. Lawmakers returned to Washington on Monday after a week of turbulent town hall meetings and some are worried about the political perils of dismantling the 2010 law without a replacement.
Conservative Republicans are balking at anything but full repeal, including ending the Medicaid expansion to the states. They panned a potential replacement bill that was leaked Friday, saying it doesn’t go far enough.
“We were elected to fully repeal and replace Obamacare and that’s the only thing I will vote for,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who dubbed the House version “Obamacare-lite.”
Democrats have sought to take advantage of the division and Trump’s low approval ratings.
Pelosi and members of the House Democratic Women’s Working Group dressed in white to demonstrate against Trump and show their commitment to protecting women’s rights.
Delivering the Democratic response, former Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear challenged the new president’s assertions that he was working for real Americans. He accused Trump of “being Wall Street’s champion,” citing the president’s Cabinet picks of Wall Street billionaires.
“And even more troubling, you and your Republican allies in Congress seem determined to rip affordable health insurance away from millions of Americans who most need it,” Beshear said.
Democrats tapped immigration activist Astrid Silva to deliver a Spanish-language response to Trump’s immigration policies. She accused the president of inciting fear in immigrant communities and promoting ideas that go against American values.
“President Trump is taking us back to some of the darkest times in our history, criminalizing anyone who is different, pitting us against each other and sending the wrong message to the rest of the world,” Silva said.
In addition to a series of meetings with lawmakers, business executives, law enforcement officials and union representatives, the ideas for Trump’s speech came from a survey to supporters that asked their priorities, the president said.
“We’ve got a bold agenda ahead of us, and the president’s going to lay it out and why it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives,” Ryan had said Monday after meeting with the president.
Trump began his presidency with a flurry of executive actions and little emphasis on his legislative priorities. With the executive orders now largely issued, he’ll need to turn his attention to Congress.
Plans to boost defense spending, overhaul the health care system and secure the border will need congressional support. Trump foreshadowed a spending battle in the near-future, including a $54 billion increase in defense spending, but he offered few details except to say it will be paid for by cuts to foreign aid and discretionary spending by the same amount.
Following the speech, the president planned a trip to promote his initiatives. On Thursday, he will travel to Virginia to give remarks aboard the USS Gerald Ford and participate in a roundtable with military officials, shipbuilders and community leaders. On Friday, Trump will attend a listening session on school choice at St. Andrews Catholic School in Florida.
The president said it was time for America to learn from past lessons. America, he said, is better off when there is “less conflict, not more.”
“From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations – not burdened by our fears,” he said.
Lesley Clark contributed to this article.