Nobody knows where this nascent Donald Trump presidency is going. New administrations start off with an infinite number of potential trajectories, but this one is even more unpredictable than others. Trump could still turn out to be a successful president. As an American, I certainly hope he will. But today at least, it looks more like a “death by a thousand cuts.”
Every president hits speed bumps; mistakes are made and unfortunate breaks occur, abbreviating honeymoons, creating headwinds, and sending approval ratings into tailspins. But a president who came into office having lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—with just over 2.8 million votes fewer than his rival—and with an initial Gallup Poll job rating of 45 percent approval, 45 percent disapproval before his first week in office is completed, and with things only worsening since then, is a different story. For the week of March 13-19, the nightly Gallup tracking poll of adults nationwide pegged the president’s approval at 40 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. And The Huffington Post’s Pollster.com and RealClearPolitics.com averages of the national polls stand at 42 percent approval to 53.7 percent disapproval, and 43 percent approval to 51 percent disapproval, respectively. In modern history, no president has had underwater poll numbers nearly this early. It took George H.W. Bush 1,336 days in office before his Gallup disapproval rating first hit 50 percent, George W. Bush 1,205 days, Barack Obama 936 days, Ronald Reagan 727 days and Bill Clinton 573 days. For Donald Trump, it took only eight days. That underscores the argument that there was no honeymoon for this president.
The House postponed its planned Thursday vote on the American Health Care Act, designed to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. No matter what the House does, the path forward in the Senate looks uncertain. For that matter, major tax reform, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and a 10 percent increase in defense spending (about $53 billion, more than Russia’s entire defense budget) all look fairly dubious at this point. The construction of a full-scale, full-length border wall, as presently imagined, has a cloudy outlook. Meanwhile, this whole mess involving Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential race and the question of whether there was collusion between any Trump campaign officials and people working on behalf of Russia are, at the very least, keeping the Trump White House off-balance and off-message. Some see it as a full-blown scandal, a potentially existential threat to the Trump presidency, but no matter where someone is on that continuum—from a nuisance to a Watergate-level scandal—it is not helpful.
That’s why I find current stock-market levels so fascinating. They are clearly driven by high consumer and investor confidence numbers, and seem to be predicated on the idea that Trump’s incredibly ambitious yet seemingly underperforming agenda will be successful. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index is currently at a 15-year high (highest since July 2001). The rival University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment similarly is at its highest level since November 2000. The S&P 500 is close to its record high, up over 15 percent from a year ago and almost 5 percent since the first of this year (though it’s dipped a bit in the last week). Nothing epitomizes this phenomenon better than the 1952 best-selling self-help book, The Power of Positive Thinking, by the late Rev. Norman Vincent Peale—this all-abiding belief that things will get better. My wife calls me a pathological optimist, but even I have a hard time seeing the public and investor mood as anything but wishful thinking given the state of Washington and, for that matter, challenges around the world.
We have seen outsider presidencies before—we once elected a former peanut farmer followed by a former movie actor. But Jimmy Carter was a former state senator and one-term governor of Georgia, and Ronald Reagan had been a two-term governor of California. The steep learning curve for this president in terms of understanding the legislative, budgetary, and national security decision-making processes is steeper than that of any previous president. And the notion of Trump adopting a presidential temperament seems a bit of a stretch, at least for now.
As for the president’s moral authority and credibility, he has yet to gain begrudging acceptance, let alone approval, of a majority of Americans. Earlier this week in a scathing editorial, The Wall Street Journal wrote, “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world?”
It’s hard to see what good can come from a president who seems to lack any self-discipline, who approaches everything tactically rather than strategically, with a staff seemingly more bitterly divided than previous White Houses. The administration as a whole has not made the conversion from a campaign to a governing mentality.
It may well not end up being death by a thousand cuts for this White House, but to make the case otherwise requires some extremely positive thinking.