Forty days into his term, the president won acclaim for delivering a presidential speech.

By Edward-Isaac Dovere
03/01/17 – 05:04 AM EST

President Donald Trump cleared a low bar: He read proficiently off a teleprompter, he looked human as he spurred long applause for the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in the raid he ordered, he didn’t get into a shouting match with any Democrats or slip off into a rant about reporters as the enemy of the people.

Or, in the words of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was excited Trump threw him a bone on some details of health care reform: “That was a home run.”

The only Trump who’s proven he can win is the Trump who ran in 2016, defiantly never conforming to the political norms every pundit and experienced strategist insisted he had to. He was raucous and baiting and insulting and aggressive, and the voters put him in the Oval Office for it.

But for all the ways conventional wisdom was proved wrong last year, most still assume the 2020 race that Trump’s already announced and held his first campaign rally for would have to be different. He’d be without the foil of a Hillary Clinton that so many voters either hated or couldn’t get inspired by, with clear benchmarks Trump declared over the course of his campaign for Democrats to hold him to, running as a person who’d have to answer for his record rather than just attack from the peanut gallery.

And yet as much as Democrats want to believe they can beat Trump, want to be bucked up by a Republican Congress that’s so far been unable to pass a single significant bill and the grass-roots energy bursting in their own base, the tentacles of doubt started creeping in as many watched the speech: What if now he’s this guy? What if they’re underestimating him like they did all through the campaign? What if they have to change up the strategy again?

Trump’s solid but substance-light speech came after six weeks of a struggling, sputtering presidency captured in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out earlier in the day showing Trump doing decently on being decisive and direct, but underwater on changing Washington, getting things done, dealing with the economy, honesty, knowledge, handling an international crisis and temperament.

And yet, Tuesday night was for the first time actually different from anything Trump’s done before. It was the kind of upbeat outreach speech that many Republicans had hoped he’d deliver at the convention last summer or at his inauguration in January, and that Republicans in Congress will need more of if they’re going to pass his agenda rather than duck and cover every time he opens his mouth or takes out his phone.

“I think he’ll continue to grow at this and do this more often,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “I think people looking at home, some may have a different impression watching him tonight and seeing that he’s a president for all Americans.”

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