President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress was remarkable partly because it was so unremarkable. What I mean is that it was very much like speeches to Congress given by countless presidents before him.
There was the now-familiar build-up of chatter on cable television describing what to look for in the speech and what the White House hoped to accomplish. There was the grand entry and hand-shaking and introduction by the Sargent at Arms. When the president delivered his lines, members of his party stood up and applauded while the opposition party stayed in their seats. When the president introduced special guests, the heartfelt applause came from both sides of the aisle.
Everything else in the young Trump Administration had been heralded as so different from what came before, that the mere normalcy of the moment seemed to be a surprise.
Just as they had for President Barack Obama, the speech was reviewed as a theater performance. “The delivery was solid. It had true moments of emotion,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told Politico. “It was the moment he went from being a partisan figure to trying to be a uniting figure. For the first time, he seemed like a president. He seemed to have the aura. It was the high-water mark of his presidency.”
As I watched, I realized that a transformation was taking place. The reality TV star and presidential candidate Donald Trump had always found a way to connect with everyday Americans who are skeptical of the political class. Tuesday’s speech showed that, for the first time, President Trump had found a way to connect with the political class as well.
Sure, there were derogatory comments from elite politicians. “The speech and reality have never been more detached,” according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. But that’s what you expect from members of the opposing party. Republicans said similar things following speeches by President Obama. That’s just the way political games are played.
So how did the ultimate outsider and breaker of conventional political rules go about generating such a normal response to a major speech?
His speech accepted a central premise of official Washington. His tone and comments suggested that politicians and the government lead the nation. That was enough to earn the president credibility among the political class. Even Van Jones, one of the more left-leaning members of the Obama Administration was impressed. “If he finds a way to do that over and over again, he’s going to be there for eight years.”
The challenge for President Trump, though, is that the political elites are wrong. They do not lead the nation. In America, the culture leads and politicians lag behind. Everyday Americans using their freedom to work together in community are the only ones who can make America great.
It’s good that the president reached out to the political class and is looking for ways to work together. There are important tasks for the politicians to accomplish such as confirming Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for the Supreme Court.
To be successful over the long-term, however, the president will have to find ways to remind the politicians that they really aren’t in charge.