Off to the Races

A Presidency Headed in the Wrong Direction

No president has been this unpopular so early in his tenure, and there’s little reason for optimism.

President Trump sits in an 18-wheeler truck while meeting with truckers and CEOs on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
March 23, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

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REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
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"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

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COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

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MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

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TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

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