The annual governance game has changed phases.
Now it becomes the job of the GOP majorities in Congress to define more clearly what President Donald Trump asks of them and decide how to respond.
By reading a conventional speech from a prepared text without bellowing, Trump on Tuesday managed to move from exhibition-wrestling persona to his salesman-like statesman role.
The capital’s empowered Republicans form an eager clientele for Trump’s most important political pitches. He wants them to sign on the dotted line of his agenda. The fine print, like some of the larger print, is still to be worked out.
Take the Affordable Care Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) need no convincing on the virtues and expediencies of repeal. They pushed it long before Trump came along.
While the president has offered no detailed prescription for how to replace it, he did frame an attractive vision, as one might do when showing a glossy brochure for condos.
Very broadly, he urged that people with pre-existing conditions “have access to coverage,” that Americans to get help for “the plan they want” and that “our great state governors” have the means to offer Medicaid.
He evoked “a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring costs way down and provide far better care.”
All this came on the heels of Trump virally proclaiming: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Beyond his legislative dealings, Trump had incentives to adjust his tone of voice.
Trump and advisers cannot all believe his low approval ratings come from “fake polls.” They clearly perceive damage from those “trivial fights” he now says it’s time to end.
At the same time, winning congressional approval on everything from confirmations to a grand national infrastructure effort takes priority for the White House.
There will be roadblocks. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), about whom Trump made humiliating statements from afar during last year’s election, has already called the president’s proposed defense increase inadequate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Trump’s State Department cuts “dead on arrival.” Back in 2015 they exchanged insults, with Trump calling his then-rival candidate a “lightweight” and an “idiot.”
In that context, consider what Sean Hannity of Fox News, who makes no secret of his fealty to Trump, said Wednesday.
Hannity, in a commentary, urged Republicans to “step up” for the White House agenda. He said he fears resistance from the GOP “establishment” “because they have the ability to undermine everything that President Trump said [Tuesday] that he wants to accomplish.”
It would be a lot worse if Trump had gone to the Capitol and thrown a verbal stink bomb along the lines of what he tweeted about the speaker in October: “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.”
Or this from that same day: “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides.”
Had he for any reason revived that display on Tuesday, who knows? Maybe Trump would suddenly find himself targeted by a pointed and thorough congressional investigation into his past contacts with Russian oligarchs — beyond whatever is underway.
Or maybe he’d face other sudden obstructions.
Instead, the legislative branch seems more disposed to reward the commander-in-chief just for behaving like an adult in their house.