Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“A change of style, not substance”

The Day’s experts discuss Donald Trump’s first address to both houses of US Congress
2 March, 2017 - 12:10

In his first address to the two chambers of Congress, delivered on March 1 at 4 a.m. Kyiv time, US President Donald Trump outlined chief ideas contained in his election statements without going into details. The president repeated that America was ready to play a leading role in the world. In Trump’s opinion, the major tasks of his administration include ensuring the nation’s security, fighting crime, and creating new jobs.

Speaking of priorities in the international arena, Trump emphasized: “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.”

Also important is the US president’s statement of support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in Washington in 1949. “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism,” Trump stressed. He also noted the importance of NATO countries increasing their defense spending.

Trump reminded congresspeople that he would ask them to pass a record increase in the US defense budget, which would be funded by cutting spending on environmental protection and diplomatic activities.

In general, almost all observers have assessed positively Trump’s address to both houses of Congress. In particular, senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, expert of Carnegie Europe in Brussels Ulrich Speck believes that this speech by the president differed greatly from his inauguration speech. “In his speech to Congress, Trump presents a grown-up version of himself. A reset of his presidency?” he tweeted. Speck said that in the address, Trump repeated the theme “America first vs. globalism,” while his foreign policy stayed completely unclear apart from support for NATO and calling on allies to spend more on defense. “Trump’s speech was abstract on foreign policy. Russia was not mentioned at all, and China only briefly in the context of job losses,” noted the expert.


Aubrey JEWETT, professor, Department of Political Science, University of Central Florida:

“One of the biggest surprises was that the style and substance of the speech was quite traditional and very similar to most previous presidential State of the Union speeches. The tone of this speech was positive, optimistic, and unifying. Major underlying themes were nationalism, putting American interests first, economic growth, security, and hope for the future. The delivery of the speech was understated with a softer tone then what we have normally seen when Donald Trump speaks (or Tweets). President Trump seemed genuine, sincere, and thoughtful in most of what he said.

“By starting his speech recognizing Black History Month and condemning recent hate crimes against Jews he emphasized these important issues and stressed how the nation had come together in support of Civil Rights. Overall, this address provided a stark contrast to his inauguration speech that was very dark in tone.

“Another traditional aspect of the speech was the listing of his main policy priorities. Trump wants lower taxes and better trade deals to spur the American economy and job creation, immigration reform and protected borders, replacement of ‘failing’ Obamacare, infrastructure investment, educational choice (especially for poor minority students), and a crackdown on illegal immigrant criminals and support for law enforcement to bring down violent crime.

“Trump spent less time talking about foreign and defense policy but did stress several important points (including seeking better trade deals mentioned above). He reaffirmed America’s leadership in world affairs and support for our traditional allies like NATO, but also made it clear that the US expects our allies to live up to their obligations in terms of paying for their own defense. He called for a big military buildup (and his budget proposal calls for a large increase in military spending to strengthen the Armed Forces) and for increased support for military veterans. Overall, he struck a tone of nationalism and specifically reminded everyone that he was elected to represent US interests first and foremost, and that he intends to do so. I think the tone and specific comments in the speech will reassure foreign allies. However, it is clear that Trump intends to move in a very different direction from President Obama.”

John HERBST, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.:

“Mr. Trump’s speech was notable for its soft tone and largely positive content. He did not use the speech to attack his political foes or to lay out controversial policy goals. For instance, he spoke about comprehensive immigration reform instead of building a wall along the border with Mexico. This approach prompted praise from even staunch critics of the President.

“Most of the speech focused on domestic policy; that was no surprise. It is a good thing that President Trump did speak about his support for NATO. He did not mention Russia or Ukraine in the speech; but he did talk about establishing good relations with adversaries when interests overlap.

“The only thing that we can conclude for now from the smooth and upbeat nature of this speech is that the White House thought it a necessary change of pace. Since the talk prompted good reviews, we may see more of it. But nothing can be safely assumed with this Administration.”

Lincoln MITCHELL, political scientist, former professor of the Columbia University, author of the book The Democracy Promotion Paradox:

“Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech was fascinating. First, it was, by his standards, calmly delivered and non-controversial. Much of it, such as the calls for tax cuts and deregulation, was the kind of thing that any Republican President might say in that setting. This was, in that regards, a very different, and better, speech than his bizarre, dystopic rant that passed for Trump’s inauguration address.

“President Trump’s physical awkwardness and lack of fluidity when speaking in English continue to be a problem for him, often making it hard for viewers to focus on the substance of his speech. On balance, this is not a major problem, but it limits the President’s ability to be an effective orator in some settings. For example, his body language is much better suited to campaign rallies and large public events than to things like debates or speeches in smaller more formal settings like the US Congress. All of this was on display as he read the speech.

“Several things stood out about the speech. The first was that President Trump continues to make big promises on which he cannot deliver. For example, the President called on Congress to replace Obamacare with ‘reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare.’ That is a nice promise, but one that without moving towards a highly subsidized single-payer system, or something of that nature, is never going to happen.”

“More significantly, there were several parts of the speech that on their own were fine, even important and eloquent but coming from Donald Trump seemed surreal and tone deaf. Some of these moments were minor and funny. The man who as President has picked a fight with the new host of the Apprentice and who spent days trying to convince the world that his inauguration crowd was bigger than President Obama’s, piously lectured the American people that ‘the time for trivial fights is behind us.’

“Other times President Trump did this were more significant. The opening lines of his speech were, ‘Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, 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.’ This is the kind of call for unity that the American people frequently hear from our presidents. Given our fraught and violent racial history, it is important for our leaders to keep doing this.

“However, coming from Donald Trump it is very different. Condemning anti-Semitism is important, but from a president, who has appointed prominent anti-Semite Steve Bannon to a key position, has run campaign ads drawing on the oldest anti-Semitic tropes and who never spoke out when his supporters engaged in nasty anti-Semitic attacks against numerous Jewish journalists during the campaign, it is meaningless, even offensive. Similarly, for Trump to spend months stoking racism and xenophobia and then call for us to stand united, makes a mockery of our ongoing struggle for a society free of prejudice.

“|There was not much in the speech that was particularly relevant for Ukraine. President Trump did not say the words, ‘Russia,’ ‘Putin’ or ‘Ukraine’ once in his speech. His people know that any mention of Russia is bad for Trump. The President stated the vague platitude ‘We strongly support NATO,’ but did not flesh that idea out with any specific proposals or ideas.

“The State of the Union was another volley in Trump’s game of occasionally sounding rational to give hope to those who want this will be a normal presidency. However, the overwhelming evidence is that this is not a normal presidency and that American democracy remains imperiled. In the hours before his speech, the story of Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s complex financial ties to Russia, the efforts of Trump to somehow blame the recent rise on anti-Semitism on the Jews and the announcement that the Department of Justice is going to abandon efforts to defend minority voting rights in Texas were the real and important news. The fact that Donald Trump made a whole speech without losing his temper, Tweeting or inciting people to violence and hatred is a distraction.”

Aliona HETMANCHUK, Director, Institute of World Politics, Kyiv:

“The tonality of Donald Trump’s address to the US Congress should be viewed as the first signal that he is ceasing to be the president of his electorate only. Obviously, the White House has convinced Trump in the first 40 days of his presidency that, to fully keep his election-campaign promises, he must receive support in Congress from both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Trump seems to begin to understand that he won’t make a sole messiah, for only a team can effectively handle the US political machine. However, I would not hasten to call it Trump’s reset. It is, above all, a change of style, not of content. In his speech, he adhered to practically all of his program positions – he just put them in a more elegant wrapping. Incidentally, Trump did not specifically touch upon the most controversial things, such as his customary attacks on ‘fake media’ and Russia. Russia is not at all the only country Trump did not mention. For example, it is the first address of a US president to Congress since 2001, which did not even once mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan. But Russia is the foreign country that not only determined the tonality of the first month of Trump’s presidency and indirectly provoked the first serious political crisis in the administration over the resignation of the national security advisor Michael Flynn – it is the only country, whether or not Trump admits it, that continues to question the legitimacy of him as president. It is also the only country the contacts with which worry almost a half of Americans. Yet it is noteworthy that most of the Republican voters – the proof of another interesting metamorphosis of sentiments in the Reagan party – are more concerned, as Trump also seems to be, not about the contacts themselves but about the leaks of them in the media. On the whole, the fact that the new administration’s rhetoric, contacts, and intentions about Russia continue to be under constant scrutiny of the major US parties and media is playing into Ukraine’s hands. In this situation, Trump can still try to pursue some elements of the Russia First policy, but he is sure to fail to pursue the Russia Only policy. There will be neither a ‘grand deal’ nor implementation of the Minsk Accords in Putin’s classical interpretation.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day