Donald Trump calls for ‘renewal of American spirit’

US president vows ‘new chapter in American greatness,’ saying ‘the time for trivial fights is behind us’.

US President Donald Trump has struck an optimistic tone in his first address to Congress, declaring the “renewal of the American spirit” and pointing to the US role on the world stage.

Opening his speech on Tuesday evening by condemning recent threats against Jewish community centres, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and the deadly shooting of an Indian man in Kansas last week, Trump said he took the podium to deliver a message of “unity and strength”.

The Republican had received criticism for not reacting strongly enough to the acts and he had not yet commented on the apparently racially motivated murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

Trump then went on to the core issue of his election campaign and his presidency so far: immigration reform.

He pledged again to build a “great, great wall” on the Mexican border and said that “by finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed,” and save billions of dollars.

He also announced that he will shortly take new steps to “keep those out” who he said would do harm to the US – after judges earlier this month struck down his ban on refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In the audience, Democratic women wore white in honour of women’s suffrage. Some Democrats also wore blue ribbons for the American Civil Liberties Union, which was instrumental in challenging Trump’s immigration ban.

US Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan applaud Trump at Capitol Hill [Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters]
US Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan applaud Trump at Capitol Hill [Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

Democrats also invited immigrants and others representing those they say could be hurt by Trump’s policies to attend the speech.

Lawmakers typically get one guest ticket each. Among those invited were an Iraqi-born doctor who discovered elevated levels of lead in the blood of many children living in Flint, a Muslim community leader, refugees and an LGBT activist.

Trump also urged others not to be petty: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Capitol Hill, said the address was very different from previous Trump speeches.

“It was a conventional speech, a presidential speech … with no references to ‘fake news’ or ‘dishonest media‘”.

“He said in his speech that ‘the time for trivial fights is behind us’…This feels a bit like a reset speech from the president. A new tone, but not much new in terms of policy.”

Backing NATO

Trump insisted on his support for the NATO alliance but repeated that members must pay their way and warned it is not his job to “represent the world”.

The new leader spooked allied capitals during his campaign by arguing that US support for NATO should depend on members increasing defence spending, but has since been at pains to defend the pact.

“My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America,” he told the lawmakers, 40 days after taking office.

“We strongly support NATO,” he said. “But our partners must meet their financial obligations.

“We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East or the Pacific to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.”

“And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that.”

“In fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in,” Trump added in a departure from his prepared remarks.

Trump praised the US armed forces and vowed to give the military “the tools they need” to prevent war and, if necessary, “to fight and to win”.

In his budget proposal, the president is suggesting boosting military spending by $54bn – by cutting the budget of the state department and foreign aid.

The proposal has been criticised by Republicans who say that cuts in diplomatic efforts are going to create enemies for the US rather than make it safer.

Executive action

Since taking office on January 20, Trump has signed at least 23 executive actions which do not need to pass Congress and signed five bills into law.

Going forward, he will need support from Congress, dominated by his Republican Party, to push through his agenda.

READ MORE: The seven biggest threats to Donald Trump’s presidency

Trump’s approval rating before the speech stood at 44 percent – a record low for a newly inaugurated president, according to a poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

In the poll, conducted February 18-22, 48 percent of Americans said they disapprove of Trump’s performance as president and 32 percent said that his first month in office demonstrates that he is not up to the job.

Aaron Kall, a political commentator of the University of Michigan, said Trump still has “a very loyal base of support, somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the country”, who think he is doing a great job because he is fulfilling a lot of the campaign promises he was elected on.

“He said he was going to bring change, to be an outsider, not a typical politician. But he needs Congressional support and that’s a bit tougher,” Kall told Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in the rain outside the White House hours before the speech to denounce his stance on immigration and other issues.

Source: Al Jazeera