Donald Trump basked in the praise of political allies and some pundits on Wednesday after delivering his first speech to Congress with a more measured tone than usual, and the promise of a “new chapter of American greatness”.
But Democrats warned against any step towards normalising a president who is anything but. Trump merely showed that he can read from a teleprompter without insulting someone, they argued, and was still guilty of making claims that were false, lacked detail or were as divisive as ever.
In a scene that was unthinkable a year ago, when Barack Obama was president and the celebrity businessman was just a political novice facing much hostility in his own party, Trump stood before senators and members of congress on Capitol Hill and was greeted with numerous cheers and standing ovations.
The tone was arguably Trump’s most muted yet, with the dark vision of “American carnage” in his inaugural address giving way to an optimistic theme of “American greatness” as the country nears its 250th birthday in 2026.
“Dying industries will come roaring back to life,” he pledged. “Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve.
“Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.”
Just as important was what he left out: no attacks on the media, no warmongering and no petty squabbles with celebrities. The man who once claimed that “I alone” can fix the broken system appealed to Democrats to “get together” with Republicans in a shared effort on everything from healthcare reform to an ambitious $1tn infrastructure programme.
There was positive reaction from major media organisations on Wednesday, with the New York Times saying: “Rising to the occasion, Mr Trump on Tuesday night sounded as presidential as he ever has since taking office.”
More predictably, Republicans joined in to hail a reset. Vice-President Mike Pence, who sat behind Trump on the dais, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “What the American people saw last night is the president that I serve with every day, broad shoulders, big heart, reaching out, focusing on the future.”
The House speaker, Paul Ryan, who sat alongside Pence on Tuesday, added: “That was a home run. President Trump delivered a bold, optimistic message to the American people … This is a president who is serious about tackling our biggest challenges and improving people’s lives.”
The hour-long speech was primarily Trump’s own work, the White House said on Wednesday, adding that he had worked on it until around 6.15pm before delivering it just after 9pm. The president was seen practising the address in his car moments before entering the House chamber.
Asked about the noticeable shift in tone from the inaugural address, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Wednesday: “It was not on purpose … One was laying out his vision for the presidency. This was laying out the policies for how he’s going to achieve that … Each speech has a different audience, a different objective. This speech was very personal. It was very much him.
“This was a Trump speech, from his heart, that evolved over the last 10 days or so.”
But critics were quick to warn this was not a pivot. Trump stayed true to his populist vision of economic nationalism, promised tax breaks for the wealthy and reiterated his vow to build a wall on the Mexican border. In a marked shift from Obama, mention of climate change was out but use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” was in, with evident relish, pausing after each word for dramatic effect, despite his own national security adviser reportedly advising against it.
There were also dubious claims. Trump said: “Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world.” In fact, the US is not even in the 30 highest-taxed nations in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
There was audible dissent from Democrats when Trump derided Obama’s healthcare policy, claimed he was “draining the swamp” in Washington, called for an end to “trivial fights” – despite his regular Twitter spats – and said he was setting up a group to represent victims of crimes committed by immigrants.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday: “This president’s speech was detached from this president’s reality. The president, in this speech and in so many others, talks like a populist. He promises so many things.
“But when he governs, nothing like that at all. He’s favoring the very powerful special interests, making their lives easier and putting more burdens on the middle class and people trying to get to the middle class … You can’t just talk the talk, Mr President, you have to walk the walk.”
Faiz Shakir, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, characterised Trump’s speech as “empty pablum”.
“Tonight, we heard more empty pablum from President Trump, completely divorced from the reality of harm he has inflicted on America’s most vulnerable communities. Trump’s speech did not address the grave human impact of his bankrupt policies, among them Sara Yarjani and Hameed Darweesh.”
Yarjani and Darweesh are both clients of the ACLU, affected by Trump’s travel ban: Yarjani, an Iranian graduate student, was detained for 23 hours and deported, while Darweesh, an Iraqi who worked for the US military as an interpreter, was detained at a New York airport for 18 hours before being released.
A revised travel ban was expected to be announced on Wednesday, but the announcement was delayed to later this week by the administration after the address.