He didn’t attack the fake news. He didn’t brag about his overwhelming Electoral College win. He didn’t even mock the poor television ratings of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Instead, President Donald Trump delivered a speech to Congress that was chock full of policy priorities as he outlined a vision for the country for the next four years.
In other words, he was more presidential Tuesday night than at any other time since his inauguration.
“A speech Americans expect of a president,” declared Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
“A home run,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed.
The businessman turned reality TV star put aside his usual bombast and gave an optimistic, even sunny, speech that finally put aside the divisive politics of the bruising presidential campaign but without returning to the dark inaugural address that spoke of “American carnage.”
The hourlong speech was full of Republican orthodoxy but also patriotism that was meant to inspire the nation as it moves forward with a political novice as its leader.
I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.
President Donald Trump
It would have been dubbed traditional if Trump were a traditional president. But for him, it was downright surprising.
This is, after all, a man who relishes disagreement and discord. His past speeches often failed to reach out to other side and included policy prescriptions – like building a wall on the Mexican border – that left his opponents feeling more critical.
Trump, saddled with sagging approval ratings, sought to use the speech to reset his young presidency after a spate of poor headlines over the last five weeks about staff infighting, accusations of collusion with the Russians and a war with the media.
He had tried to do this before but failed. His lengthy freewheeling news conference to address the allegations of chaos two weeks ago only led to more allegations of chaos.
Americans strongly approved of Trump’s speech, according to a CBS News poll released early Wednesday. Forty percent of Democratic viewers at least somewhat approved, while 18 percent strongly approved. Many Democrats joined Republicans in calling the speech presidential, according to the poll.
Jittery Republicans, thrilled to have a Republican in the White House but not necessarily this Republican, breathed a sign of relief. Even some Democrats couldn’t help but praise Trump, no small feat in the partisan atmosphere that has taken hold of these annual presidential speeches to Congress.
“President Trump struck a new tone in his address,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. “While he reiterated many of his campaign themes, I was encouraged by his call to work together.”
Others Democrats, though, decried the lofty rhetoric as disingenuous because of Trump’s actions toward immigrants and minorities during his first month in office.
What we saw is a man in a suit reading off a teleprompter filled with more broken promises.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee
Still, this time was different. Why?
Trump was uncharacteristically disciplined – not a word often associated with him – reading the text on a Teleprompter, a machine he’d once mocked politicians for using, only occasionally ad-libbing an extra adjective or a joke.
When referencing his recent visit with Harley-Davidson executives at the White House, he said: “They wanted me to ride one and I said, ‘No, thank you.’ ”
Trump reached out to members of both parties, often choosing issues designed to appeal to more than just those who’d voted for him.
“Our citizens deserve this, and so much more – so why not join forces to finally get it done?” the president asked. “On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country, and for the good of the American people.”
Many stood up and applauded when he spoke about family leave – a long-standing Democratic priority that his daughter Ivanka has championed – and spending millions of dollars on the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.
“I’m encouraged by President Trump’s commitment to investing in defense and infrastructure – areas where I will continue to look for common ground,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
I was glad to hear a vision of bipartisanship to try to bridge differences that exist.
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.
Trump kicked off his speech in a surprising way – acknowledging both Black History Month and the threats and vandalism targeting Jewish institutions – after long being accused of surrounding himself with people who promote racial and religious bigotry. He pledged to work with Muslim allies to combat the Islamic State terrorist group while mentioning that both Christians and Muslims are being killed in the Middle East.
He even turned one of the worst moments of the week into one of the best moments of his speech.
The father of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in a recent raid in Yemen, refused to meet with Trump after the first covert counterterrorism operation Trump had authorized left his 36-year-old son dead.
But Trump invited and singled out Owens’ widow, Carryn Owens, seated next to Ivanka Trump during the speech, for special recognition. She received a prolonged standing ovation as she broke down in tears, a moment that quickly became the most touching and most memorable of the night.
Trump hasn’t always been able to do that. During the campaign, he picked a fight with Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun Khan was killed in Iraq in 2004, saying the father had “viciously” attacked him.
Now the question is: Will Trump be able to turn the page on his presidency and make it last? There were signs he was trying.
Hours after the speech, the president had not changed the subject with one of his criticisms or distractions. He hadn’t even sent an errant tweet. And the White House, buoyed by the speech’s response, pushed off the release of a newly written ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries to another day.