REUTERS / Carlos Barria
President Trump addresses a Joint Session of Congress in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 28. (REUTERS / Carlos Barria)

WASHINGTON — Two experts on relations between presidents and Congress gave Republican President Donald Trump good grades for his first speech Tuesday, and both agreed Democrats made the night tense.

“We live in a highly polarized time and Congress is at its most polarized state since the Civil War,” Tom Hayes, who teaches classes on congressional politics at the University of Connecticut, said. “So there’s a lot of distance between the parties.”

Trump laid out the agenda for his presidency. He ran off a list of accomplishments since taking office and issued promises for the year ahead.

But most of his hour-long speech didn’t get much of a rise — literally — out of skeptical Democrats in the audience.

“While it seemed to me that all members stood when Trump entered (the chambers), many Democrats didn’t applaud and have remained seated for much of the speech,” Hayes said.

At times, Trump called for the parties to work together.

“Overall I’d say this is the first time, to me at least, that Trump has looked presidential. And It’s a clear difference from his campaign speeches, convention speech, as well as his inaugural address,” Hayes added.

Trump highlighted new lobbying restrictions, and executive orders he put in place to reduce regulations, restart halted oil and gas pipelines, and a crackdown on illegal immigration.

He promised a “big, big cut” in taxes to the middle class and promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.

In one of the speech’s more tense moments, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who was seated in the audience, shook her head as Trump criticized Obamacare. Pelosi helped then-President Barack Obama pass the law and has sharply criticized Republicans for trying to undo it.

Agreeing with Hayes’ assessment of Trump’s speech was Art Paulson, a professor emeritus of political science at Southern Connecticut State University, who is teaching a course on Trump’s first 100 days in office this semester.

Paulson, who described himself as a “liberal Democrat” said that he thought the Democrats were taking their dislike for Trump and his policies a bit too far. “They could have applauded a bit more,” Paulson said.

He said the stiffness they demonstrated was “a bit excessive.” Democratic women wore white in honor or the suffrage movement and some wore blue pro-health care buttons that read “Protect our care.”

Overall, Hayes said the speech was a “traditional first address to Congress.” He said Trump’s low approval ratings are largely due to his actions, but his rhetoric has also been very divisive.

“A more positive speech in which he acts more like the president, will probably resonate better with the American people than his previous approaches,” Hayes said.

It’s not too late for Trump to improve his approval ratings.

“We’ll see if Trump continues to act presidential or if he goes back to insulting people on Twitter, attacking the press, and the overall incompetence we’ve seen in the first month of the administration,” Hayes said. “If he keeps those action up, he’s likely to remain unpopular.”

In his speech, Trump touted “billions” in new investments by American companies in the weeks since his inauguration, seeking to highlight the actions his administration has taken to keep his campaign promises.

Trump also promised to spend billions to repair the country’s infrastructure.

On that issue, again, Hayes said that Democrats could have given Trump a warmer response.

“His call for infrastructure spending, for example, is popular among both parties and especially among Democrats,” Hayes said. 

As far as initiatives, Trump also promised to usher in a “border adjustment plan.”

“Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes — but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them nothing or almost nothing,” Trump said.

Trump’s comments were received with some bipartisan applause and some jeers from Democrats, especially during his mention of a lobbying restriction that some feel does not go far enough.

He also pressed his policies on immigration, including his controversial proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We want all Americans to succeed — but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos.

We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders,” said Trump. “For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border. It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.”

Trump challenged members of Congress who disagree with him: “I would ask you this question: what would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”

He also called for Republicans and Democrats to work toward reforming the immigration system into a merit-based program focused on the “well-being of American citizens.”

Trump argued that the country’s current focus on low-skilled immigration hurts American workers and strains the country’s finances.

Trump did not specify the parameters of a compromise he would be willing to accept on immigration, but he outlined a preference for a system that favors immigrants who are able to support themselves financially.

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said.

Pointing to statistics on terror convictions by foreigners from the Department of Justice, Trump said that it was “reckless” to allow foreigners into the country who could then perpetrate attacks on Americans.

“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” Trump said.

The comments drew mixed reaction from lawmakers.

Though Trump did not specifically mention the travel ban, he suggested that new efforts to put in place “improved vetting procedures” would be forthcoming.

He began the night by strongly denouncing recent threats to Jewish community centers across the country and condemned a recent attack on Indian immigrants in Kansas.

“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

Paulson said beginning his speech by condemning the threats to Jewish community centers “was one of Trump’s better moments.”