The bar was low for his speech to Congress, and President Donald Trump cleared it.
Trump managed to sound presidential for an hour after weeks of chaos and missteps that have helped earn him the lowest approval ratings for any new president since modern public opinion polling began.
He mostly avoided insults and stuck to his script. He condemned hate crimes that have spiked amid his overheated rhetoric. He traded the “American carnage” language of his inaugural address for optimistic but simplistic calls for “unity and strength.” He even called for bipartisan cooperation — on his terms.
But in the end, it was just a kinder, gentler version of his usual campaign speech. “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” he said. “Every problem can be solved.” He just doesn’t say how.
Trump offered grand plans with no clue how they would be paid for: $1 trillion in infrastructure spending; huge increases in already bloated military budgets; an unnecessary “great, great wall” on the Mexico border that will cost tens of billions; corporate tax cuts; and “massive tax relief for the middle class.”
And what about government deficits and debt that have soared since Bill Clinton left office? No mention of that, or how Trump’s huge promises would keep them from exploding.
Trump’s speech was yet another reminder that we must focus on what he does, not what he says, especially since he has a talent for contradicting himself and his appointees several times a week.
One of the first things to watch will be Trump’s renewed call for Congress to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. Here, he did offer some details, setting markers by which the public can judge him and Congress.
Trump called for more choice, more availability and lower-cost health insurance that provides better care. He said people with pre-existing conditions must be covered and that the transition to a new system must be stable.
He touted standard Republican prescriptions: tax credits, health savings accounts and selling insurance across state lines. And he strongly urged legal changes to cut the high cost of drugs. It will be interesting to see where that promise goes, given the powerful pharma lobby’s grip on Congress.
Trump also urged Congress to give state governors more flexibility on Medicaid spending, with this important caveat: “to make sure no one is left out.”
The president mentioned Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s complaints about “failing” Obamacare. That’s probably because he knew the Democrats’ response to his speech would be given by former Gov. Steve Beshear, who successfully used Obamacare to extend coverage to more than 400,000 uninsured Kentuckians.
Speaking from the Lexington Diner, Beshear delivered a folksy rebuttal to Trump’s view of the world and proposals to fix it. He criticized Trump for ignoring the threat of Russia, alienating American allies and “eroding our democracy” by attacking the court system and the press.
“His approach makes us less safe and should worry every freedom-loving American,” Beshear said.
And, as expected, the former Kentucky governor emphasized the future of health care, saying Republicans seem determined to rip coverage away from millions.
“Folks here in Kentucky expect you to keep your word, because this isn’t a game,” Beshear said. “It’s life and death for people.”
It was a good reminder that, at the end of the day, Trump’s words will mean little. Watch his actions, and those of his party’s majorities in Congress.