Skip to main content

Speaking in a legislative chamber where rhetoric collides with reality, U.S. President Donald Trump summoned members of Congress on Tuesday evening to enact his program to overhaul the American immigration and health-care systems, to promote economic growth and, in a reference to the Islamic State, to "extinguish this vile enemy from our planet."

But Washington operates in two separate dimensions, talk (which is plentiful and easy) and action (which is rare in an era of political polarization and difficult in the best of times). As the applause faded after the President's debut address to a joint session of Congress, the problem of enacting the Trump blueprint for a "new chapter of American greatness" met the sober actualities of Washington politics. The result likely will turn out to be exactly as the President earlier this week described the politics of overhauling the health-care system: "an unbelievably complex subject."

The President has the advantage of Republican control of both houses of Congress, but he is swiftly discovering that the larger the party majority, the more present and prominent are the factions. A President who ran against the establishment of his own party tried Tuesday night to enlist members of that battered group to enact a program that superficially matches their inclinations but in the details almost certainly will cause them anxiety.

Explainer: How do U.S. courts work? A map of the battlefield for Trump's immigration ban

Related: Trump pledges 'buy American' measures in address to Congress

In a speech to Congress, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Canada's "merit-based" immigration system. The same speech included tough rhetoric on undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the plan to build a wall between the America and Mexico.

For subscribers: Foreigners nasty, but you're okay: Five Trump takeaways for Canada

The day before his debut at the rostrum of the chamber of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump said "nobody knew that health care could be so complicated," a remark almost universally understood to mean that he didn't know that health care – and, by extension, multiple other elements of the budget in the U.S. federal portfolio – was so complicated. Now the President, who spoke in the House chamber of a "renewal of the American spirit," is finding out.

What follows are some of the principal objectives and obstacles at work in the bitterly fractured U.S. capital, where political figures are coming to grips with the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, which found that about nine-tenths of Trump voters in a bitterly contested and close election approved of the President's job while nine-tenths of those who voted for Hillary Clinton disapproved.

Health care

Besides the wall at the Mexican border, the elimination of the health-care program enacted under president Barack Obama was the most prominent element of the Trump presidential campaign. Mr. Trump returned to that theme Tuesday, saying Obamacare was, in his term, "collapsing." But his demand to "repeal and replace Obamacare" came after his Republican colleagues, besieged by protesters troubled about restrictions on health insurance, endured difficult town meetings at home, some of them essentially hiding from their own constituents, and after state governors of both parties shared their apprehensions about the health-care future. The context was the latest edition of the respected McClatchy-Marist Poll, which found that 67 per cent of Americans oppose the repeal of Obamacare. Dismantling Obamacare may be more difficult than enacting it was.

Budget priorities

The President spoke broadly about the budget proposal he will deliver to Capitol Hill, and while he won cheers from the Republican side of the House, he drew deeply skeptical grimaces from the Democratic side. There is no question there will be dramatic increases in military spending and cuts in domestic programs, but the details have yet to be worked out – and may take months.

It grew common in the Ronald Reagan years to pronounce a presidential budget "dead on arrival." No doubt the marble halls of Congress will reverberate with the letters "DOA" in the days to come; the first to use that phrase this year was a Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He issued that proclamation before the budget even arrived.

The President's intentions are clear. He wants steep environmental and regulatory cuts and is aiming at social-welfare programs. In the hours before his Capitol Hill address, he sought to soothe his opponents with talk about limiting deportations of immigrants, empowering women and supporting historically black colleges and universities. Even so, all these groups almost certainly will mobilize to fight domestic-spending cuts. Big fights are ahead.

Military spending

The days when Republican presidents propose enormous defence increases only to be blunted by Democratic opposition may have ended with the Nixon years. Mr. Reagan won big defence boosts and, so, too, may Mr. Trump, in part because defence spending is distributed so widely that there is hardly a congressional district that does not benefit from military spending. At the same time, a surge in public approbation of the military, saluted at sporting events and in concert halls alike, will make it difficult for individual lawmakers to oppose increasing the defence budget. The very best the Trump foes will do is trim the White House request only slightly.

Capitol politics

Both Republicans and Democrats face essentially the same question: How much to follow a President who did not win the popular vote? Republicans, citing minor party candidates, will argue that the total number of conservative-oriented votes outnumbered the liberal-oriented votes in November and thus will follow their natural inclination to support the President. There will be limits, however; GOP lawmakers generally will support cuts in what Mr. Trump described as "job-crushing regulations," but may recoil, for example, at some environmental cuts if interest groups persuade suburban Republicans that these cuts endanger the quality of life of middle-class Americans.

On the other side, Democrats, who generally embrace the sort of infrastructure spending initiatives Mr. Trump set forth Tuesday night in what he called a $1-trillion (U.S.) "new program of national rebuilding," have to calculate how vociferously they are to oppose the President. They deplored the Republican obstinacy directed at Mr. Obama and are wary of repeating that performance. But they know their constituents are agitated and motivated, and they cannot afford to give the President most, or perhaps much, of what he is requesting without a spirited fight. They know they have to battle Mr. Trump, but will have to decide whether they oppose him, as Shakespeare might have put it, wisely or too well.