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Trump managed to jump over 'a pretty low bar' with speech but a reckoning may come

Although markets are celebrating President Donald Trump's more upbeat message to Congress on Tuesday night — shooting the Dow over 21,000 — there's still reason to think investors may be getting way ahead of themselves on the president's ability to deliver on massive fiscal stimulus.

From a political theater perspective, Trump clearly succeeded in remarks to a joint session in which he spoke of "a new chapter of American greatness" and a "new surge of optimism" in the nation. Nowhere to be seen was the "American carnage" hellscape that dominated Trump's desultory inaugural address.

From the outset, this was a different Trump. The president began his speech with his most forthright statement thus far condemning recent acts of anti-Semitism, and an apparently racially motivated shooting in Kansas.

"While we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil," Trump said, to bipartisan applause. Throughout the address, Trump generally returned to optimistic themes, though he also spent sections railing against illegal immigrants and announcing a new office to publicize their crimes.

Yet investors clearly embraced the more presidential tone, figuring it will give Trump some fresh political capital to drive his agenda on the Hill and slam through comprehensive corporate and individual tax reform, along with a hefty stimulus package that the president said will create more than $1 trillion in new investment.

Early polls also showed the public liked the speech. A CBS News/YouGov poll found that 76 percent who watched approved of the speech, and 82 percent found it "presidential." A CNN/ORC poll found that 70 percent of viewers said it made them feel more optimistic about the direction of the country.

However, as expected, Trump did not wade deeply into the thorny policy specifics bedeviling Congress. He once again called for repealing and replacing Obamacare and "historic" tax reform — without weighing in on whether he supports a border adjustable tax (BAT), the linchpin of the House GOP's corporate tax reform plan but lacking in Senate Republican support.

Meanwhile, Trump kept up his arguments for a more protectionist trade policy, citing Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration: "The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the 'abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government [will] produce want and ruin among our people,'" he said.

"Lincoln was right — and it is time we heeded his words. I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers, be taken advantage of anymore," Trump added.

Republicans, who not too long ago mostly embraced free trade, applauded this line enthusiastically, though there was a much more muted response when he invoked his decision to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

'A pretty low bar'

Somewhat surprisingly, Trump called for Congress to pass an immigration reform bill, with aides on Tuesday suggesting the president was "open" to a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. It remains very hard to see Congress, already overburdened with Obamacare, tax reform and the budget, coming together to do any such thing.

Trump once again touted the stock market advance, something presidents usually avoid because markets also sometimes go down. "The stock market has gained almost $3 trillion in value since the election on Nov. 8th, a record," Trump said.
Wall Street analysts generally praised the speech but questioned the lack of any specific detail on tax reform.

"This was still a campaign speech and if there was any pivot at all it was more a campaign for ideas than for office," Brown Brothers Harriman's Scott Clemons said after the speech. "But it was light on details. One takeaway is that there was an enlarged focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act, which is not low-hanging legislative fruit and it will be hard to untangle that."

Clemons added, "If there's room for dissatisfaction on Wall Street about the speech it's that both corporate and individual tax reform really got little more than a passing glance and no more details. I didn't hear a whole lot that was new. He was certainly more presidential but that's a pretty low bar."

The reality on Capitol Hill is that there is still no clear path forward on Obamacare and the August timetable laid out for tax reform is incredibly ambitious. Should Trump eventually support the BAT, the plan laid out by Ryan could pass the House. But then it would run into perhaps immovable opposition in the Senate.

If the Senate kills the border tax and drives up the 10-year price tag of a marginal rate cut, the product it returns to the House could fall apart. There is probably some final agreement available on tax reform, but the process could be long and hard, and cause investors to reset expectations.

There is also little agreement on the Hill on how to structure any stimulus package. It's not surprising markets are celebrating the emergence of a more presidential Trump. Yet we've seen that version before and it hasn't lasted long. There still could be a market reckoning ahead.

— Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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