America's most unconventional president appeared for the first time before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, and delivered an entirely conventional speech. And that was almost certainly the point.
Forty days after Donald Trump's inauguration, the new administration has wound up on two very different trajectories. On policy and in major appointments, the White House has had a nearly unbroken streak of success.
On the personnel front: With the notable exception of Andrew Puzder's withdrawal from his nomination to become secretary of labor, Trump appears poised to get nearly everyone he chose into his new administration. Trump also hit a home run on the right with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — and may not run into too much Democratic opposition to him.
On policy, too, Trump has already begun fulfilling his campaign pledges, as he took care to note in his speech. Regulatory reform, tougher enforcement of immigration law, and reversing course on trade deals are all under way. With Republicans using the Congressional Review Act to roll back Barack Obama's late-term regulatory blitz, the new administration has gotten off to a fast start on its legislative and executive goals.
Just how they got there, on the other hand, has been more problematic. The White House fumbled the rollout of its first attempt at a temporary suspension of entry for nationals of seven high-risk nations, and then fumbled their defense of it. The flame-out of erstwhile National Security Adviser Michael Flynn showed a confused and chaotic operation in the West Wing, where even the president's confidante Kellyanne Conway appeared out of the loop. President Trump himself acknowledged the rocky start of his team on messaging in an otherwise friendly interview with Fox & Friends.
"I think in terms of effort, which means something, but I give myself an A+, okay? Effort," Trump replied when asked to grade his start. "But that's, you know, results are more important. In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C+." The rough start for the new administration certainly made for some questions about whether Trump could deliver on his campaign promise that his private-sector executive success would translate into uber-competent governance.
The joint session speech clearly aimed to alleviate those concerns. Rather than use Trump's usual extemporaneous and barbed style, which was on full display at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, Trump instead stuck to reading a prepared speech nearly verbatim off the teleprompter. He never mentioned Hillary Clinton, nor did he boast at length about his Electoral College victory. He didn't make wild claims of massive voter fraud or brand the press the "enemy of the American people." He was measured. He was a statesman. He was normal.
The speech itself, while well-crafted, also emphasized normalcy over disruption. Like most State of the Union speeches (this one was technically a "presidential address"), it consisted of the administration's talking points, claims of success for actions already taken, and a laundry list of agenda items yet to come. None of those were new; a rumored call for Gang of Eight-style comprehensive immigration reform wound up watered down to a plea for Democrats and Republicans to work together on a solution that put the American worker first.
Trump talked about his victory as a "rebellion," but the only element of revolt against convention was his use of the term "radical Islamic terrorism," a rhetorical formulation avoided by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After spending more than a year on the campaign trail criticizing Obama for not using it, though, its inclusion hardly came as a surprise.
Otherwise, the speech looked and sounded very … normal, right down to the use of guests to highlight presidential policy. In form and style, if not necessarily on explicit substance, this speech could have been delivered by any of Trump's predecessors of the modern television age. For that reason, it will likely be as forgettable as similar addresses from other presidents, except as a usual reference point for future policy. State of the Union speeches rarely provide memorable oratory, so the yeoman-like status of this speech only serves to underscore normalcy even further.
That will matter, and not just to the voters outside of the Beltway. It mattered to the audience in front of Trump on Tuesday night: Republicans on Capitol Hill. Before Tuesday's address, some of them had to be wondering whether the new White House could get its act together on process as well as policy, and if Trump had a temperament that would allow them to work together. Tuesday's speech shows that Trump can choose to modulate his approach when needed — and that the White House understood that it was needed now.
Even unconventional leaders have to show that they grasp the conventions when necessary. On that score, Trump got a significant win, and that may keep his other winning streak going.