Pay no attention to that unpresidential man tweeting behind the curtain, almost every day, often before sunrise. His pathological defensiveness, juvenile bullying, taunting, name-calling, distorting and outright lying are unworthy of your respect. Believe me.
Pay big-league attention to that suddenly presidential-sounding man you saw addressing a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. He seemed, for the first time after a month on the job, to be speaking like an adult who realizes he must actually conduct himself like the United States president that he is. He seemed to have finally realized that words he speaks produce real consequences that will reverberate instantly around the planet. For better and (especially!) for worse.
The real Making of President Donald J. Trump is underway, at last.
As presidential makings go, this one is just a work in progress. After all, it got off to a woefully late start. We don’t yet know, for example, if Trump has a clue that, by the rules that apply to presidents, tweets are just the same as talk. The good thing (for some presidents) is that spelling doesn’t matter in either; the bad thing is that negative consequences of a spur-of-the-moment tweeted blurtation can be instantaneous. Will Trump be the first president ever to provoke a hostile military consequence with an unfiltered tweet? Also: Will Trump ever realize that tweets aren’t truth-free zones and that taunts from presidents in their White House are not treated with the same benign tolerance as taunts shouted by kids on a playground?
Tuesday night, Trump went about preparing for his faux State of the Union event with the sort of presidential discipline that had so often eluded him during his first weeks of on-the-job training. First, he began by correcting one of his most unpresidential flaws – his repeated failure to realize he must immediately condemn instances of hate crimes, including anti-Semitic vandalism and worse. He opened his address by strongly stating what he had failed to say, even when specifically asked about it twice by reporters. (It began to seem he had reverted to repeating his campaign failure of not wanting to offend any supporters, even those who were also abhorrent bigots.)
Trump’s address was carefully constructed to convey an optimistic and uplifting tone – an objective that might seem obvious but was bizarrely ignored in his downcast inaugural address, which painted a dark negative portrait of the America he had just sworn to lead. On Tuesday, Trump made clear he expects Congress to keep all of his campaign promises – vast increases in defense spending, building his great wall along our Mexican border, repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Trump’s big picture scenario was a veritable paint-by-the-numbers portrait of the America he intends to create. Except Trump’s portrait had no numbers – and most of all, no numbers that were preceded by dollar signs.
Fiscal reality has hit our billionaire president hard. On Monday, he offered a confession of sorts to the nation’s governors at the White House about something that has clearly surprised him as he has begun to finally focus on his promise to replace President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act: “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” Of course, his guests, who are in charge of administering the health care programs in their states, already knew that.
The dilemma this president is now grappling with is that his Republican Party hasn’t told America about any replacement plan that will guarantee that everyone who now has insurance through Obamacare will able to continue to be affordably insured on any replacement plan.
The best Trump could do in his speech was to promise that all those with pre-existing health problems will be able to have “access to coverage” – without mentioning that this “access” to insurance might come with a much higher price than they now pay or can afford to pay.
That’s the bottom-line truth Trump and his fellow Republicans always knew but didn’t choose to explain throughout the long 2016 campaigns. Their voters trusted them more than they trusted their voters.
The writer is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.