In September 2009, after a month that nearly saw legislative support for his domestic agenda collapse, President Barack Obama convened a joint session of Congress to focus the minds of wavering Democrats on the task at hand: reforming the nation’s health care system.
For nearly an hour, Obama defined the goals of his proposal, explained its importance and its function, and listed his criteria for signing legislation. (It was in this address, after Obama said his health reform plan would not subsidize illegal immigrants, that Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at the president, setting the tone for Republican opposition for the coming seven years.)
Legislative momentum is a nebulous concept. It is possible that the speech saved his legacy, or that the Affordable Care Act would’ve passed anyhow. But with his signature initiative on the line, Obama left nothing to chance.
The joint address President Donald Trump gave Tuesday night was a more traditional event. Every new president gives one, much like a state of the union address, but before a new president has had a chance to shape the union itself. It is unsurprising that Trump would be tempted to use his speech to re-champion his vision for the country and place himself above the parliamentary squabbling that powers Congress.
But if anything, at this extremely early date, Trump’s legislative agenda is more imperiled than Obama’s was in that September speech. It is conceivable that Republicans in Congress will find themselves unable to repeal Obamacare—the first domino in a procedural cascade that will leave the GOP with little or nothing to show for consolidating control of government.
Trump could have offered his congressional foot soldiers moral support and guidance. Instead he gave an address crafted almost entirely with his own immediate political fortunes in mind.
In the most superficial sense, Trump met his objective.
Trump peppered his remarks with a more balanced mix of banal platitudes, lies, and characteristically offensive agitation than marked his inaugural address and other speeches—aimed more squarely at lazy pundits primed to celebrate Trump’s latest “pivot” than at insecure members of the Republican congressional conferences. With such a large, captive television audience, it wouldn’t surprise me if the address fleetingly, but perhaps substantially, lifts his approval ratings.
But against a backdrop of severe congressional dysfunction, when his members are deeply divided over the substance and ordering of their agenda, nothing he said made their marching orders clearer. With his agenda on the brink, and his party in need of direction, Trump sought to shore up his personal tracking poll numbers.
The health care portion of his speech, in which he asked Democrats and Republicans to “save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster,” comprised five sentences, recapitulating the health care reform blueprint House Speaker Paul Ryan has drafted, but that right-wing members and vulnerable incumbents do not support (at least not yet).
Trump spoke, as many presidents do, with an eye toward how the story of his presidency will be written. To a staggering degree, he has approached governing as a largely publicity-driven enterprise. If a presidency were composed of a series of addresses to Congress, and Trump delivered this one over and over, history might well remember him as a competent leader.
But Trump is on the verge of being remembered as a president too incompetent to execute an agenda that would, in principle, break faith with his most devoted supporters. He did little Tuesday night to change that trajectory.