Axelrod: Trump's promises face buzzsaw of reality

Trump's speech to Congress in 90 seconds
Trump's speech to Congress in 90 seconds

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Trump's speech to Congress in 90 seconds 01:30

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: In a speech that sanded down rough edges, Trump made commitments that will prove very hard to deliver
  • He says on health care, tax cuts, he is already ensnared in debates with Republicans that have stalled their progress

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The most revealing moment in President Trump's speech to Congress on Tuesday night came amid its most powerful one.

The President's tribute to Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens -- who was killed in Yemen on a mission that was a success or failure, depending whom you ask — was the emotional coda to an otherwise workmanlike speech.
Exploitative as the stagecraft may have been, only the hardest of hearts could have helped but be moved by the wrenching image of Ryan's grief-stricken widow, Carryn, looking skyward as the chamber showered her with applause.
    Trump, always the producer, allowed the ovation to continue for two minutes and 11 seconds before resuming his speech. I'm sure he felt sympathy for Ryan's loss, but the man also knows television and this was inarguably good TV and clever politics.
    Trump's address to Congress, in context
    Trump's address to Congress, in context

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      Trump's address to Congress, in context

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    Trump's address to Congress, in context 05:16
    Ever since the January raid on an al Qaeda stronghold, in which Ryan was killed, six other servicemen were injured and an aircraft lost, the nascent administration has been dogged by questions about whether the action was prudent and productive. Just last weekend, Ryan's father angrily demanded an investigation to determine if his son's life was compromised by poor decision-making.
    All that was blown away, at least for an evening, by the searing scene in the House chambers.
    Yet never one to err on the side of understatement, the President decided to go for more.
    "Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he's very happy, because I think he just broke a record."
    This engendered another ovation but cheapened what was an otherwise transcendent event. She's grieving an incalculable loss. And the President is measuring the length of the applause -- as much, one sensed, in the spirit of self-satisfaction for having orchestrated the moment as solicitude for the fallen SEAL and his family.
    He just cannot help himself. And therein lies his problem.
    Axelrod: Trump's message is 'be very afraid'
    Axelrod: Trump's message is 'be very afraid'

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    Axelrod: Trump's message is 'be very afraid' 09:01
    Trump had a good night Tuesday, faithfully reading a speech that sanded down the sharp edges of his familiar, provocative message. It still had bite, but was delivered with less bile. There was the usual litany of gross exaggerations and outright falsehoods to keep the fact-checking machines whirring. And while the language was sheathed in warmer tones, the underlying vision still was fundamentally divisive.
    Yet for this night, reading a carefully calibrated speech in the august House chamber, Donald Trump looked like a President. The Tweeter-in-Chief even, straight-facedly, recited an admonition that "the time for trivial fights is behind us."
    That drew some derisive laughter in the chamber and, I suspect, the country. No fight has been too trivial for this President. His impulsive tweets and taunts in response to even the smallest provocation -- and provocateurs -- have regularly sidetracked the messages he and his team had hoped to deliver.
    Presidential addresses are palliatives. They produce short-term gains that are sustained only with consistent messaging and follow-through on the commitments made.
    On Tuesday, Trump made many commitments, and most will prove far more complex and difficult to deliver than his resolute words acknowledged.
    On two of his signature issues, taxes and "repealing and replacing" Obamacare, Republicans in Congress are ensnared in intramural debates that have stalled their progress.
    "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated," the President lamented Monday at a White House meeting of the nation's governors, all of whom have known for a long time how complicated health care can be. That is why so many Republicans and Democrats are leery of the plans emerging to replace the Affordable Care Act.
    For six years, Republicans have made "repeal and replace" their war cry. Now they are in charge, and have no consensus on how to proceed without gutting the law's popular core benefits, which Trump has vowed to keep.
    At town hall meetings across the country, they are hearing from angry and anxious constituents in what is the mirror image of the tea party protests we saw when the Affordable Care Act was being debated seven years ago.
    In his speech, Trump said, "Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for our country. The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we are going to do."
    When the President and his team finally delve into the complexities of health care, he may come to regret that politically pleasing stanza.
    Barack Obama also opposed mandates, until confronted with the reality that to achieve the goal of covering the uninsured, including Americans with pre-existing conditions, you must have everyone, from the young and healthy to the older and frail, in the pool.
    The House plan the President tacitly endorsed Tuesday night would cost millions their care, return the country to the days when insurance companies could refuse people with pre-existing conditions and remove myriad consumer protections that guarantee patients a minimum standard of coverage while preventing them from losing it if they become seriously ill.
    McConnell: American's expect Obamacare repeal
    McConnell: American's expect Obamacare repeal

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    McConnell: American's expect Obamacare repeal 01:10
    And it would lavish benefits without regard to income, so the Trump family would be eligible for the same tax credits as the laborer at Mar-a-Lago.
    That is why members of Congress are proceeding with caution.
    The tax debate also is complicated, particularly in light of Trump's call for a massive military buildup, infrastructure program and increased veterans' benefits, all without touching Social Security and Medicare for now.
    For a party that has spent eight years railing against deficits, such an unpaid spending spree will be a hotly debated topic, as will how such a tax cut would be structured.
    A plan that showers benefits on the top 1% of earners and a middling benefit to the middle class would violate the spirit of Trump's campaigns and reap a whirlwind of protest.
    So there are plenty of roadblocks ahead for the President that defy his script and will try his newly expressed sense of equanimity.
    For a man who has reached the pinnacle by indulging his impulses, the next breach of the comity and common purpose he called for Tuesday night may only be a tweet away.