By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump showed a different side in his first address to Congress. This Trump was part deal-maker, part salesman, asking for unity and trying to repackage his populist message in more palatable terms.
He was less combative, less thin-skinned and more inclusive.
And where five weeks ago at his inauguration, he slammed Washington’s politicians as out-of-touch elitists who prospered at the expense of the public, his message on Tuesday night was different: I need you, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Always a showman, the TV reality star-turned-politician laid out plenty of promises: A massive infrastructure and public works program; tax cuts for the middle class; immigration reform; a healthcare overhaul; an education bill.
All of it will require congressional action, likely by different coalitions of conservatives, moderates and Democrats.
“This is our vision. This is our mission,” Trump said. “But we can only get there together.”
Trump, a Republican who has taunted Democrats over his 2016 election victory and publicly fumed as they held up his Cabinet nominees, did not criticize them this time. Repeatedly, he asked for their help, arguing the country’s problems demanded bipartisan solutions.
After weeks of attacks on the media, political rivals and the judges who ruled against his executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump finally eased off, although his proposals were short on specifics.
“It was a softer tone and he gave a speech and not a tweet and that’s more suitable when you’re president of the United States,” said Democratic Representative Peter Welch. “The challenges are going to be the details on his policies.”
“He was presidential tonight in a way he has not been before this,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.
The address appeared to show some recognition by the White House that Trump’s bombastic go-it-alone style has its limits. After a parade of executive orders, Trump now must turn his attention to the big-ticket items on his agenda requiring legislative action.
“He’s done all he can unilaterally,” said Bradley Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush. “Now he needs to pass bills.”
Blakeman said Trump needs Democrats to build a majority that would allow conservative Republicans to oppose some of his more centrist proposals, such as hefty infrastructure spending and talks on immigration reform.
“The president is as transactional a person as we’ve ever seen,” Blakeman said. “He understands that you might not like this deal, but I need you for three other deals.”
Despite the softer tone, Trump’s divisive policies and months of hostile rhetoric will not be forgotten by his adversaries.
“If you have been living in a cave for the last month, you might think this was a reasonable speech, If you see him every day, you can only see this as words,” said Rodell Mollineau, once a top aide to former Democratic Senator Harry Reid. “If he had carried himself like this every day, Democrats might be in a different position.”
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the leading Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a statement: “The president’s speech was utterly disconnected from the cruel reality of his conduct.”
Congressional Democrats said they liked Trump’s infrastructure program, his childcare tax credit, his call to reduce the prices of prescription drugs, and his vow to preserve some key elements of former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 Obamacare health insurance law.
Democratic Senator Christopher Coons offered muted praise for Trump. “That was the most coherent public address he’s given in a month and it certainly began and ended with positive themes.”
Democrats nonetheless remain troubled, among other things, by Trump’s pledge to slash domestic programs to increase military spending, his plans to reduce taxes for the wealthy and corporations, as well as his aggressive deportation policy.
To be sure, the more foreboding elements of Trump’s campaign rhetoric were still present, albeit slightly dialed-down. As he did during the campaign, he portrayed the country in ruinous economic shape and plagued by terrorism, drugs, gangs, and illegal immigrants.
In coming days, the White House is likely to release a revised version of its travel ban, reigniting a controversy that overshadowed the first weeks of Trump’s presidency.
Trump came into the address struggling with public opinion. In an interview with Fox News he acknowledged that he and his staff had not been effective communicators. The most recent Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll found about 48 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s performance, with 46 percent backing him, poor numbers for a new president.
Mackowiak said Trump’s address could reverse his fortunes in a “crucial moment” for his presidency. “His public support will improve from this speech,” he said.
But John Geer, a public-opinion expert at Vanderbilt University, was not convinced. “He’s going to have to do more than give a speech.”
(Reporting and writing by James Oliphant Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)