Strategic Insight: The United States - Reflections on Trump's early days

by Dr Chester Crocker

The United States - Reflections on Trump's early days

 - Reflections on Trump's early daysThe new US administration is still finding its feet in terms of both policy and people, and the Washington establishment remains in a state of shock at both the style and substance of a White House team without prior governing experience at any level (with the exception of Vice-president Mike Pence).

Early weeks of President Donald Trump featured some false starts, several loud and troubling drumbeats (‘the media is the enemy of the American people’), and a few clear signals on fiscal and budget policy. The US is to now have a ‘security budget’ that privileges defense (not intelligence or diplomacy), law and order, first responders and border control officers. All other ‘discretionary’ civilian programs are to be cut – some with serious immediate effects. The State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US AID are prominent, early victims (barring Congressional roadblocks).

Other features of these early weeks include:

• An utter lack of respect for laws relating to conflict of interest;
• An exceptionally prominent role for members of the Trump family in advising and running policy reviews; and
• An extraordinary delay in getting Cabinet Departments staffed up to serve their Cabinet Secretaries. Some 1,200 senior slots in Treasury, Defense and State remain empty; Senate committees that are normally busy performing their ‘advice and consent’ role in confirmation hearings are waiting around for something to do.

It is unclear whether the painfully slow process of staffing the administration is the result of ignorance, lack of experience, or incompetence – or is the convenient result of a White House team determined to control everything and not to delegate or to tolerate autonomous statements and decisions.

Whatever the explanation, this approach to governance will not work and will have to change. Trump’s speech to Congress on 28 February showed an effort to transition from shouting and tweeting to actually governing, and will produce an upward blip in poll numbers. The more optimistic tone, combined with a strong statement against hate crimes, positions him better if he now listens to the more thoughtful advisers in the White House entourage. Nonetheless, Democrats are already claiming that the speech is a classic ‘bait and switch’; Republicans cheered loudly but remain divided on much of the top legislative agenda.

Washington today is run by an odd mixture of outsiders who wear their outsider status as a badge of honor, and voter-facing Republicans in Congress who embrace the winner even though he is not one of them. They want to co-opt him and push him to make their policy dreams come true, and he’s determined to wedge them into support of his proposals. Congressional Democrats, bruised by a crushing defeat but with a still relevant voice in legislative horse-trading, are watching and waiting as the Republicans try to govern. The shoe is on the other foot now.

Many of the Trump domestic agendas – infrastructure, tax reform, repeal/replace Obama’s health plan, revising the massive Dodd-Frank financial reform package – are going nowhere. Executive orders can block things or impose immediate regulatory pauses, but they do not produce policy-based laws. One reason for the legislative wheel-spinning is that when Republicans have made careers opposing even the basic work of making the government run, it’s hard to pivot to writing major legislation. As New York Times reporter Neil Irwin writes: “In the opposition, it’s easy to be strident and pure in your views. Legislative sausage-making requires compromise and flexibility and focus on the gritty details.”

Few Republican legislators are interested in or good at technocratic analysis and policy wonk proposal drafting – nor is this Executive branch led by someone with a flair for making policy. Ideologues and populists may reign, but they have not yet figured out how to govern.

Looking ahead, it is well to recognize that American political parties no longer have major influence as institutions that shape policy and groom future leaders. The parties have lost control of the game of American politics to grass roots and ‘independent’ activists who mount initiatives and campaigns that may not have the backing of either the K Street lobbyists or Congressional factions. Changes in political technology and campaign finance laws explain much of the shift. In the 2016 presidential election cycle so-called ‘super PACs’ almost outspent the fund-raising efforts of the parties and their Congressional campaign committees.

These trends shed light on how the US ended up with Trump. What, exactly, are GOP legislators to
make of ‘their’ president, who proclaimed this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference
that he wanted to make the GOP ‘the party of the American worker’? Sounds great. American working class and middle class voters may have their say in just a couple of years. That is, if they vote.

But this problem is non-partisan. What is the future for a Democratic party that has lost nearly 1000 seats in the 99 legislative bodies at state level across the country since 2009? That remains another open question, and the intra-party factional maneuvering has just begun. Democrats have a huge amount of ground to make up.

On balance, it is a messy time. One that offers plentiful opportunities for authoritarian regimes abroad that have agendas of their own.
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Dr Chester Crocker was an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. He is the James R
Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University. He was chairman and member of the board of the United States Institute for Peace between 1992 and 2011 in Washington, DC. He is a founding member of the Global Leadership Foundation and a member of the World Bank’s Independent
Advisory Board on governance and corruption.

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Dr Chester Crocker
Chester Crocker is a former senior US diplomat

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