How are you going to pay for your plans, Mr. President?

President Trump’s address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and health care.
Jim Lo Scalzo/ Pool/Getty Images
President Trump’s address to Congress focused on national security, tax and regulatory reform, the economy, and health care.

Donald Trump’s Tuesday speech sounded like a make-up exam for his abysmal inaugural address. And judged by that standard, it certainly qualifies as a success.

Of course, that’s a decidedly low bar, given that Trump’s inaugural effort was the worst national oratorical effort since Vice President Andrew Johnson’s drunken 1865 inaugural address.

The generally well-received address to Congress demonstrates something important. It takes some time, but Trump responds to critics and criticism. If enough people energetically point out his shortcomings, he adjusts.


For this beleaguered White House, Tuesday’s speech to Congress definitely counts as a success. Let’s hope the president learns from the largely positive response his more presidential approach earned him. But let’s also wait and see. After all, as the old Russian saying has it, “Fine words butter no parsnips.”

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“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump declared.​​​

But if ever there was a man who has reveled in the persecution of trivial feuds, it’s Donald J. Trump.

Those feuds are his stock in trade. A change in his modus operandi is certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished, but seeing — or in the case of his twitter attacks, not seeing — will be believing.

Now to substance. Trump floated an aggressive and costly tax cut and spending agenda with no realistic notion of how to pay for it. He talked about a big reduction in corporate taxes and “massive” middle class tax reform. Although unmentioned last night, the last version of his tax plan also called for big breaks for upper earners.


The cost of that will also be massive, and it can’t possibly be offset by cuts in domestic programs or the foreign aid budget or the State Department. Or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans were unconcerned about deficits during George W. Bush’s presidency. They suddenly morphed into deficit hawks during Barack Obama’s term, using supposed concerns about fiscal discipline to block important aspects of his agenda.

Now that a man who claims the Republican label is back in the Oval Office, they are lapsing back toward deficit indifference. We’re even starting to hear that economic growth spurred by Trump’s tax cuts will take care of any such problem.

But that’s just another way of saying that tax cuts will pay for themselves. They won’t. The result will be a large increase in both yearly deficits and total national debt. And that will push the cost of Trump’s agenda onto future generations, forcing them to sacrifice their aspirations to pay for this era’s tax cuts.

Trump also slighted future generations by completely ignoring the risks of global warming, even as he celebrated his coal- and pipeline-friendly policies.


Finally, the president seems to be setting himself up to break his campaign promise on the Affordable Care Act. During the campaign, he said he would replace Obamacare with something that was, in his words, “much less expensive and much better.”

In January, he went further, telling the Washington Post that “we’re going to have insurance for everybody” and adding that “there was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”

And yet in his speech, Trump appeared to be shifting toward the House’s health-care approach. House leaders hope to block-grant Medicaid, which would inevitably diminish coverage under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and reduce the tax credits that makes health plans affordable for those who purchase insurance on the exchange.

Now, Trump was vague enough so that one can’t say for sure, but if he does climb aboard the House train, he will have broken his health care pledge. A president can gloss over matters like those in a speech. But he can’t do it when formulating or passing policy. Those questions, choices, and tradeoffs can’t be wished away the way the president did on Tuesday.

And where he comes down on those issues ultimately matters far more than a welcome, if long overdue, change in tone.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.