Last night Donald Trump made his first speech to congress and it was more positive and conventional than his usual style, notably differing in rhetorical tone from his January inaugural address where he now-famously referred to a landscape of “American carnage”. The president spoke about immigration reform, infrastructure spending, gender parity, and even gave a “shout out” to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the process.
President Trump campaigned heavily on hardline immigration policies and his administration has been met with massive protests in response to executive orders that attempted to put the refugee program on hiatus and temporarily ban entry to the U.S. of citizens from seven majority-Muslim nations. In his Tuesday address Trump attempted to shift his approach, focusing on how reform would both help the middle class and raise wages for workers. He also emphasized that immigration policies should privilege those with skills over unskilled workers, calling this a move to a merit-based system.
Change to U.S. immigration policies has been a quagmire for the previous two presidential administrations because it is an issue deeply steeped in the division between the two major political parties. While Trump did allude to his more usual concerns of national security and respect for U.S. laws, he also said that reform would only be possible if Democrats and Republicans worked together toward a common goal.
The president also announced his plan to ask Congress for his $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus – a promise from his campaign – which he believes will create millions of new jobs. He wants to rebuild America using American labour and American products, hearkening back to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Program launched in the 1950s. Trump also implied that this work was long overdue, claiming that the U.S. has spent its money building up the infrastructure of other nations instead of rebuilding itself. Of special interest to Canada, Trump also made reference to his approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which was halted under Obama.
Gender parity was also a topic covered in the address, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada were specifically mentioned as partners in creating a council to help promote women’s entrepreneurship and equal pay. When the Prime Minister visited Washington D.C. last month, he met with Ivanka Trump and several other female entrepreneurs to discuss this initiative. The idea came from his chief of staff Katie Telford, who brought the idea to Jared Kushner, a White House aide and husband to Ms. Trump. Nonetheless, many female Democrats in attendance wore white in honour of the suffrage movement.
Trump also spoke about major reforms to the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, referring to changes as a “necessity”. He wants to increase choice and reduce costs, but many Democrats still see his unspecified plans to make these changes as a threat to the coverage of millions of Americans. Many in the minority opposition wore buttons in support of protecting Obamacare while they sat in silence through the address.
Critics of the address claim that Trump was lacking in concrete details, most notably on tax reform and health care. He specifically made no mention of contentious border taxes that would aim to increase exports and limit imports. There was certainly less vitriol in this speech compared to previous addresses, which is a move in a more conciliatory direction, but many questions remain about how exactly Trump plans to usher in his plan for a “new chapter of American greatness”.