Faltering Trump needs to turn his presidency around

NEWS ANALYSIS

The Trump team is reeling after it pulled a landmark healthcare Bill designed to repeal the so-called Obamacare legislation from a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. The move is a major setback to the White House in its first major legislative test in Congress.

The episode highlights that, although President Donald Trump has shown himself to be an effective – if often unorthodox – campaigner, it is genuinely unclear what governing competence he will demonstrate as the first president since Dwight Eisenhower never before to have held elected office.

Despite the billionaire businessman’s claims of being a master deal- maker, Friday’s reversal underlines how different the national political domain can be to that of running a privately-held family conglomerate.

Healthcare, in retrospect, was a poor choice for the administration’s opening legislative gambit in Congress. There was significant popular, interest group and elite political opposition – from left and right – to Trump’s Bill, which the independent Congressional Budget Office estimated would lead to 24-million fewer United States citizens having health insurance over the next decade.

Although there is more than enough time for Trump to turn around his presidency, the partisan animosity and wider political challenges facing him means he is badly on the back foot.

This is underlined by his job approval ratings, which have fallen to 41% according to Gallup, one of the lowest of any sitting incumbent at this stage of a first term presidency in the post-war era.

Whether his tenure in the White House is ultimately judged as a success, or failure, will largely depend on the skill with which he now re-energises his administration and pursues a successful governing agenda, projecting what moral authority remains from his election victory last November.

The presidency provides Trump with at least two broad powers: that of setting governing themes for his administration and creating interactive coalitions among the public and in Congress in support of the administration’s legislative and wider programme.

Trump’s effectiveness in setting governing themes and building coalitions of support, which has been limited to date, will depend upon his political prowess in exploiting two sources of power: the popular prestige of the presidential office and his leadership reputation among members of Congress and senior federal bureaucrats.

Strong, effective presidents exploit each source of power interactively – as, for example, Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and 1940s and Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.

To make the presidency work most effectively, Trump will now have to show rapidly and with confidence that he knows how to do both, defying some expectations that are held about him by many voters and political elites.

Since he assumed office, the White House has too often appeared to have been riven by chaos, incompetence and confusion with, for instance, its apparently baseless claims of wiretapping on Trump by the previous Obama administration; legal setbacks to the administration’s hastily constructed bids to clamp down on immigration from several Muslim-majority nations, which appeared to lack a grasp for detail; and a potentially brewing scandal over the Trump team’s alleged ties with Moscow, which has already claimed the scalp of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

Moreover, it appears possible that Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, could yet face a bitter showdown in the Senate in April. This follows a decision on Thursday by many Democrats to oppose his nomination.

Trump needs to develop a governing agenda, which has more popular support and where he can leverage Republican majorities in Congress. It’s likely he will now seek to build this around tax reform and infrastructure spending where there could be easier majorities in Congress to cultivate.

Trump would also benefit from less polarising rhetoric, and by seeking to demonstrate greater reconciliation after a long, bitter election campaign in 2016. After a period of such rancour and discord, the country is divided – and Trump has disputed political legitimacy with some voters who favoured Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or other candidates, especially in the context of the ongoing Russia investigation by the FBI.

Moreover, there have been only four previous occasions when a winning presidential candidate lost the popular vote: in 2000 when George Bush beat Al Gore; in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison bested Grover Cleveland; in 1876 when Rutherford Hayes beat Samuel Tilden; and in 1824 when John Quincy Adams bested Andrew Jackson.

The rarity of these electoral circumstances reinforces the need for Trump to strive for a healing of frayed relations and establish strong governing themes for his presidency, which command popular understanding and support while affording him latitude for political development to manoeuvre.

In November, Trump moved in this direction, indicating he would govern for “all Americans” and “bind the wounds of division” from the campaign, and promised a “project of national growth and renewal … in which nothing we want for our future is beyond reach”. Yet, since he assumed the presidency, this spirit of reconciliation is in the woods of Washington.

As the healthcare debacle showed, Trump also needs to form stronger relationships with legislators in Congress, rather than the “fire-fighting tactics” deployed last week. More than 120 members of the House of Representatives had a visit, call or meeting at the White House in the days before Friday’s pulled healthcare vote, but this proved too little too late.

Taken overall, there is ample time for Trump to turn his presidency around, despite repeated setbacks in the last two months. In suitably skilled hands, the office offers potential for national renewal and unity at troubled times, and this remains true today despite the political baggage that Trump brings. The next key test will be working more effectively with congressional colleagues to forge a multiyear governing agenda that can bring the country together.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

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