For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress. The speech was his first serious opportunity since the Inauguration to present a blueprint for his agenda, but it also presented him with a chance to speak directly to the American people after a month of frenzied and often hostile reporting on his new administration and several self-inflicted but hardly fatal political missteps. As he recently said to reporters, in assessing his first month in office, he would give himself an A for content but a C for messaging.
Traditionally, State of the Union addresses are long and rather enervating affairs with laundry lists of program ideas woven together with high-minded imagery and rhetorical flourishes. Trump, of course, is a very different kind of president, known neither for soaring imagery nor delivering meticulously crafted oratory. Expectations, then, from his supporters though not low were still pensive, while his critics and political opponents were preparing themselves for a raucous affair.
What actually occurred was a politically adroit change in tone and style and a conciliatory tone that temporarily at least disarmed his foes. It was focused tightly on economic concerns, immigration and national security and education. And while there was little mention of such key issues as Life and religious liberty, Trump’s vision for America has many points of relevance, interest and also concern for Catholic Social Teaching.
A Full Agenda
Throughout the campaign, Trump made one of his core messages the deep anxiety felt by millions of Americans over the economy. His message of economic populism resonated with voters, and in his address, he quoted again the grim statistics that 94 million Americans are out of the labor force and that more than 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million are on food stamps.
The president proposed a sweeping set of ideas, including a merit-based immigration system; “a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States – financed through both public and private capital – creating millions of new jobs”; reductions in the tax rate on companies and tax relief for the middle class; and a push for fair trade.
One of the most controversial issues for the new White House is immigration. Much attention has been placed on his pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and Trump renewed that promise in his speech. He tied the call for action on immigration with national security by promising to proceed with his program of vetting refugees and his vigorous enforcement of immigration laws and border security. Likewise, he connected immigration to economic growth and his call for a serious bi-partisan effort. “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible,” he proposed, “as long as we focus on the following goals: To improve jobs and wages for Americans; to strengthen our nation's security; and to restore respect for our laws. If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
In the area of healthcare and the promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump stuck to his description of the health law as the “imploding Obamacare disaster.” He argued that Obamacare is collapsing and that “Action is not a choice – it is a necessity.” This shifted the political ground toward a sense of crisis, but he then enumerated an approach that was designed not only to retain the few popular elements of the law but to entice possible Democrat support.
His principles were extensive: First, ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that there is a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges; second, help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts; third, give state governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid; fourth, implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance, and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs; finally, give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across State lines.
He then added a commitment “to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.”
While there are serious concerns among many Catholics and the U.S. Bishops over Trump’s immigration policies, some features of his health agenda are likely to meet with support. The bishops, for example, remain committed to expanded healthcare but who are also still fighting for the repeal of the HHS mandate.
Similarly, there is much in the president’s plans for education – termed by Trump “the civil rights issue of our time” – that will be welcomed by Catholics. “I am calling upon Members of both parties,” he said “to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”
Tone and Style
Trump has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to learn, adapt and then surprise the political establishment. He mastered the use of political theater in the Republican primaries, embraced the role of disciplined campaigner in the last month of the presidential election in 2016 and now has achieved an understanding of his role as president and Commander in Chief. From that standpoint, by every measure the address was a remarkable political achievement.
The president was disciplined, optimistic, generous, reaching out and highly measured in his delivery and content. The speech itself was clearly well-structured and also traditional in its presidential character, which for Trump is a notable shift. “I am here tonight,” he said, “to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”
Details were hazy, as is typical of most addresses to Congress, but he reached out to both sides of the aisle and asked for cooperation on several initiatives, most notably fixing – or repairing – the Affordable Care Act, so-called Obama Care, and immigration.
Given Trump’s own penchant for engaging in rhetorical combat, especially via Twitter, it is an open question as to whether this approach will last for long once the lines of battle are re-joined in the halls of Congress and in the mainstream media. Even with control of both houses on Capitol Hill, there are still many obstacles to fulfillment of the whole agenda for the president and the GOP leadership in this hyper-polarized atmosphere. For the moment, however, Trump has the pledges of both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to push his plans forward, and they will find the task much easier politically with at least some Democratic cooperation.
For the White House and the GOP leadership the stakes are very high, and long delays on some components will have both severe ramifications for the whole (a stalled repair of Obamacare might endanger the tax cuts), with risks for the 2018 mid-term elections. For the Democrats, the scorched earth politics of the last months have also been complicated by Trump’s change of style, and they run the risk of appearing to be radical obstructionists. This is, then, a key but perhaps fleeting moment to work for the genuine common good. As Archbishop William Lori recently told the Register, “I think we all need to step back. I think we need to turn down the rhetoric and I think that this is true of people on all sides of the political spectrum.” For however briefly, on Tuesday night they did.