What a week. President Donald J. Trump has transferred the unconventional and often bizarre aspects of his campaign into how he intends to govern the nation. The new chief executive entered office with the lowest popularity rating of any president since records have been kept. His inaugural address was a repeat of his campaign promises put on steroids.
Making America great again, putting “America first,” buying American and employing Americans were the repeated refrains of his populist pep talk. Clearly, Trump is honoring his campaign promises. But his first full day in office, consumed with angry complaints and tantrums about “phony press” reports diminishing the size of public attendance at his inauguration, was the worst of any president since William Henry Harrison, who contracted pneumonia and died several weeks later.
In a rapid-fire series of executive orders and often contradictory statements from the White House, Trump cancelled the transpacific trade pact, rolled back Obamacare, ordered a wall on the Mexican border built and floated and then waffled over re-establishing CIA secret detention sites and even waterboarding for terrorists in stark violation of the law. The president again declared that Mexico will pay for this wall.
After the president of Mexico canceled his scheduled visit to Washington, Trump said “the president and myself” agreed to defer the meeting. Then, in retaliation, the White House threatened to impose a 20 percent tax on all Mexican imports to America. Unsurprisingly, a firestorm of protests exploded in Mexico.
The Trump team seems to have forgotten the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 that exacerbated and extended the Great Depression. Whether this spate will escalate to a trade war is uncertain. However, Mexico’s more extreme and highly anti-American left wing has gained political ground. If this trend continues, the prospect of a hostile government across the Rio Grande is not unimaginable. Provoking this crisis less than a week in office is quite an achievement. Wags are asking if Gen. John J. Pershing should be exhumed to lead a second punitive expedition south of the border.
While the spin was good, the meeting Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May did not clarify how the “special relationship” might endure post-Brexit. The promise of a bilateral trade treaty cannot be legally undertaken until Britain leaves the European Union. That divorce will not occur until 2019. And whether the British public and Parliament are prepared to accept Trump’s word for the long term is not a given.
Optimists cloak hope in the assumption that the grave duties of the presidency will force responsibility on Trump’s actions and temper his ukases with common sense. The risks for the Republican Party are huge but marginal when it comes to the future of the nation. The president won election partly on guaranteeing the creation of millions of jobs and annual economic growth of 4 or 5 percent. The president and Republican Congress must deliver on the now sacred pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare with a better plan. If the GOP fails on either account, expect a political tsunami equivalent to the Republican shutdown of government in 1995 that produced Democratic control of Congress and Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996.
Presidents always have endured rough sledding in the first year or so in office. Jack Kennedy presided over the Bay of Pigs disaster and then the summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva that thoroughly rattled the young president. Bill Clinton created a healthcare debacle when his wife, Hillary Clinton, failed to develop a viable plan. And George W. Bush was hit with September 11. Sadly, no president has or is likely to escape the force of history.
Trump is acting as if he is the master of the universe. In a rare and scathing telephone interview, his chief strategist Stephen Bannon labeled the media “the opposition,” declaring “it should keep its mouth shut… and listen for a while.” Thus far, no one in the president’s inner circle has assumed the role of “no man” telling the president when he is wrong or chiding him over missteps. Congress has not had sufficient time to impose its will or influence on the president. With only four secretaries approved, Cabinet government has not had a chance to be put into practice.
The president’s very brief tenure is obviously a ludicrously short period over which to evaluate how well or badly any leader is doing. If this were a football game, the opposition would be several touchdowns ahead in the first seconds of the game. Unfortunately, governing is not a game, football or otherwise.