The ridiculous gushing over Trump's speech

Van Jones: The moment Trump became President
Van Jones: The moment Trump became President

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Van Jones: The moment Trump became President 01:45

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Trump praised for "presidential" tone in speech to Congress
  • The President barely cleared what was an incredibly low bar

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)Watching reaction to President Donald Trump's speech to Congress on Tuesday night, the phrase that kept coming to mind was one made popular by former President George W. Bush, "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Bush was bemoaning our habit of accepting underachievement when we expect as much from certain groups or people. But it's not a stretch to say that those who praised Trump for his speech didn't do it because he did a good job, but because we have come to fear -- to expect -- a horror show when we hear from this President.
And so a day after Trump's Tuesday speech to Congress, it seems pundits everywhere are proclaiming that he had suddenly become "presidential."
    Hardly.
    If anything, he barely, just barely, cleared an incredibly low bar.
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    In fact, if any other president had given the same speech -- filled, as it was, with inaccuracies, false claims, and statements directly contradicting what he said only hours earlier -- the performance would have been lambasted from every corner.
    There were, to be sure, very moving moments during the President's address. And there is no denying that Trump kept the level of his accustomed outrageous pronouncements to a surprising minimum. That is the faintest of compliments.
    The lengthy applause in tribute to Navy Seal William "Ryan" Owens -- killed during a raid in Yemen last month -- and to his distraught, tearful widow, Carryn Owens, was a wrenching, heartfelt homage to a fallen hero. It was not, let's be clear, in any way praise for the President. I find it mind-boggling that CNN's Van Jones declared that at that moment Trump "became President of the United States."
    It is grotesque to claim that the moment reflected Trump's triumph. His administration has done nothing but exploit Owens' death, in order to cover up the disastrous raid. Ryan's father, Bill Owens, blames the President for what he called a "stupid mission." The elder Owens has admonished Trump, "Don't hide behind my son's death." But that is exactly what the White House has been doing from the very beginning, and Trump cynically did it again during his speech.
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    Even more shamefully, in a Fox News interview Monday, the President pinned the death on his generals. "They wanted to do (the raid)" he told Fox News. "And they lost Ryan."
    With this President, the buck stops somewhere else, unless there's something for which to take credit. Then it's all him, as when he listed the companies he falsely claims have decided to invest in the United States and increase hiring, supposedly thanks to his efforts. Most of those business decisions were made before the election. Still, large companies are happy to hear Trump praise them, so everyone wins, except the truth.
    It was good to hear Trump start his remarks with a condemnation of the rash of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as the shooting in Kansas City. It is, indeed, presidential to say, as Trump did, "We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms."
    It is so presidential, it is so basic, that it should be unremarkable that he said it. But it is remarkable, because Trump has equivocated on the issue repeatedly. In fact, only hours before the speech, at a White House meeting with state attorneys general, Trump reportedly -- bafflingly -- appeared to suggest that the attacks might have been carried out "to make others look bad," according to one of the AGs in attendance, and that in terms of the threats, "the reverse can be true."
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    Indeed, if Trump genuinely condemns hatred, his plan to create an agency dedicated to highlighting crimes committed by undocumented immigrants is the most vile prescription imaginable for stoking prejudice and hatred. The "Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office," with the snappy acronym VOICE, is populist crowd-riling at its worst. It will likely lead to more hate crimes and vigilantism.
    No wonder there was an audible gasp in the audience when he announced it. Research shows that in fact undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the rest of the population.
    What was utterly un-presidential in the speech is something that should never become acceptable, even though it is now routine in the Trump era: misstatements, manipulations of the truth, and downright falsehoods uttered by the President of the United States. For this he receives praise?
    The most absurd statistic he cited was the 94 million people out of the labor force, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that suggests a catastrophically-high unemployment rate. That number includes 44 million retirees, 13 million students, and millions more who have no interest in getting a job. The real unemployment rate stands at just 4.8 percent, a historically low figure delivered by Trump's predecessor, President Barack Obama.
    Trump spoke of the scourge of "wide open" borders, "for anyone to cross -- and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate." But the fact is that illegal immigration across the border with Mexico has been declining, and is now at the lowest levels since 1972.
    And when he boasted of imposing an excellent-sounding lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments, he failed to mention that ban applies only to lobbying an employee's own agency, and may in fact be weaker than restrictions imposed by the Bush and Obama administrations.
    Trump reassured allies of America's commitments, which he should have done as a candidate and reiterated at every chance. That was another moment, like his condemnation of hate crimes, made remarkable only by Trump's previous equivocation on the subject -- he has at times said the exact opposite. Trump then claimed that increased NATO members' contributions are the result of his tough talk, a highly debatable point.
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    His reassurances to allies, while welcome, came coated in a troubling pronouncement that sounded deceptively innocuous. "America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path," he said. Those were soothing words for Russia's neighbors, worried about Moscow's aggressive expansionism. But Trump immediately added, "My job is not to represent the world," which must have sent a cold chill through Ukraine and America's Baltic allies.
    Yes, Trump delivered his speech calmly, like a "normal" president. And his words were less outrageous than in the past. That is progress. The high marks he received are more a sign that the country desperately yearns to have a good president, than evidence that Trump's speech was genuinely worthy of praise.