President Trump can go both ways. On February 24, he delivered a wild-and-woolly speech brimming with populist anger to the Conservative Political Action Conference. Four days later, he addressed a joint session of Congress in statesmanlike fashion and called for national unity and bipartisanship.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Trump is politically bipolar. He shows very different sides of his political thinking depending on which adviser influences him. Adviser Steve Bannon’s unfettered populism shaped the CPAC speech and even a bit of the talk to Congress. His daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, the moderate couple, had a bigger role in his milder words to the joint session.
But something gets left out here: Trump himself. It’s as if he’s a president with no mind of his own and few serious ideas. He’s putty in the hands of his advisers. This has been said of earlier presidents—Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, for instance.
The notion of presidents as brainless vessels is a hardy perennial of the press. But it’s rarely true. And it’s especially not true in Trump’s case. What the media and much of the political community have yet to recognize is that Trump shares many of the traits of a conventional politician. A loud, overbearing, and crass one, yes, but still one who calculates his moves in the way politicians do.
It may be a heterodox idea, but Trump actually has strong ideas of his own. They involve more than the quality of his speeches as performance art. If Trump is a genius for having scoped out a path to the White House that no one else saw, it makes sense that he’d have substantive ideas as well. And he does. We know the list. It starts with immigration, trade, and terrorism.
But why would he prolong his fight with the press corps, calling them “very cunning” and “very dishonest” in his CPAC speech? Why would he refer to “bloodsucker consultants”? Why would he say everyone on welfare should get a job? Because he was talking to his enthusiastic fans, and that’s what they love to hear. He was delivering the goods. Acting presidential wasn’t required that day.
It was for Trump’s first address to the House and Senate. It was necessary. If you’d been around Washington long enough, you’d have thought his speech was pretty ordinary. It was stately, ceremonial, and patriotic, as such nationally televised speeches by a president always are.
Trump didn’t rant, but that shouldn’t have been a surprise. It wasn’t the first time he’d switched to a high-toned speech. He did it last October when it was necessary. After the leak of the raunchy Access Hollywood tape threatened to doom his campaign, he dropped his rambunctious speeches and turned serious. He talked about issues and used a teleprompter. He wasn’t flippant or nasty.
His appearance before Congress required dignity, even some pomposity. Trump complied. “Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty, and justice in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” he said. “That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”
But he couldn’t resist some jujitsu with the Democrats. They have promised total resistance to everything and everybody he puts before them. They wanted to sit on their hands for Trump’s entire hour-long speech. He wouldn’t let them. He endorsed things Democrats like, forcing them to stand up to show their approval.
“I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States . . . creating millions of new jobs,” he said, echoing what Hillary Clinton had advocated. Republicans are leery.
There was more. “My administration wants to work with members of both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clear water,” the president said. This is Democratic language. So is forcing employers to give workers paid time off when a baby is born.
Trump cleverly focused on another chink in the Democrats’ anti-Trump armor. A Rasmussen poll found that 63 percent of Americans want Democrats to work with the Trump administration. And Trump put himself firmly on the side of the majority.
He singled out immigration and Obamacare as issues on which Republicans and Democrats should come together. Democrats must have winced at this. Though the parties are far apart on immigration, Trump said “real and positive” reform is possible.
As for Obamacare, Trump said it is “collapsing and . . . I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.” He said this moments after asking Congress “to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
The president has put Democrats in a box. If he is serious about bipartisanship, they will be hard put to refuse to negotiate. Stiffing him would only enhance Trump’s position as a president who wants to deal.
A final point. Trump isn’t a bipolar president because that would mean the two sides are opposites, like giddy and depressed. That’s not so with Trump. I think the two sides—populist and conventional—complement each other. So far.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard