President Trump began a new phase of his presidency Tuesday night with a new tone: upbeat, if only by Trump standards, and just maybe looking to make a few deals.
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Yet the optimism in the speech was tempered, and of a particular sort –- centered on the president who was the center of attention. Trump continued to depict a nation with a shrinking middle class, a listless foreign policy, saddled by debt, and with drugs pouring over the borders, criminal cartels and immigrants committing murders, and a crumbling system of roads and bridges.
Enter, in Trump's telling, Trump: "In 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet."
For a night, his hard edges had soft tones. From a man criticized for sometimes failing to condemn racism and anti-Semitism among his supporters, he offered a condemnation of "hate and evil in all its forms."
From a man promising a "deportation force" and decrying undocumented immigrants as killers and racists, he offered a potentially startling shift with a call for "real and positive immigration reform."
From a man who seemed to blame the death of a Navy SEAL on those who designed the raid, he offered a raw and emotional tribute to a legacy "etched into eternity."
From a man who has used his Twitter feed as an insult generator –- even after being elected president –- came an unusual declaration.
"The time for trivial fights is behind us," the president said. "From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears."
In that message are shades of the economic nationalism that got Trump elected –- and that he views as key to his policy successes from here.
"Americans must put its own citizens first, because only then can we truly Make America Great Again," he said.
It's not the slogan that will cause quarrels, at least not by itself. It’s the policies that Trump is propagating –- policies that have evolved only minimally from his scorched-earth campaign.
He offered no give in his plans for a border wall, immigration crackdown, renegotiated trade deals, and tax cuts. Of course, he drew big applause from only half the room with his call to “repeal and replace Obamacare” – without providing the fresh details of his plan that are now bedeviling his own party.
“Obamacare is collapsing -- and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice -- it is a necessity," he said. "Why not join forces to finally get the job done, and get it done right?"
Democrats will have plenty of answers to that question. The president’s few enticements for his opponents -– his vision of uniting on paid family leave, clean air and clean water, and infrastructure investments – are likely to be stifled by the facts of his actions, not his words.
Still, the president's tone was striking.
"Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope," he said.
Whether this part of the shift marks a genuine pivot from an unpredictable president, or head fakes from a political figure who's made his name through distractions, remains to be seen. Perhaps this is a president becoming presidential, or a businessman returning to his deal-making roots, or a political shape-shifter showing a new skin that won't last until daybreak.
At bottom, however, this looks like new marketing around a familiar -– and still generally severe – agenda. If there's optimism in America, it’s still confined to a base that's channeled its hopes and expectations into a still-untested president.