Donald Trump can still have a successful presidency despite low poll numbers
Andrew Hammond argues that the US president can still have a successful governing agenda, but this would require less divisiveness, more cooperation with Congress and greater emphasis on establishing legislative themes
This week US President Donald Trump celebrates the anniversary of his election victory. Yet Trump has achieved little of what he said he would during the campaign and his poll ratings are hovering at or below 40 per cent. Remarkably, he has enjoyed no sustained political success or honeymoon since January, despite the fact that Republicans enjoyed a “clean sweep” last November, securing majorities in Congress too.
While there is still time for Trump to turn around his presidency before next November’s midterm elections, the partisan animosity and wider political challenges place him on the back foot. Indeed, a Monmouth University poll a few weeks ago showed that more people want Trump impeached today than was the case for Richard Nixon at the start of the Watergate scandal.
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Much talk has been driven by speculation surrounding congressional and FBI investigations into his team’s alleged ties with Russia. This potential scandal has already claimed the scalp of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, and most recently saw former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleading guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin, and the president’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, facing charges of (among other things) conspiracy to launder money.
Whether Trump’s tenure in the White House is ultimately judged as a success or – as seems more likely at this point – a failure will largely swing upon the skill with which he now re-energises his administration and tries to pursue a successful governing agenda. So far, he has singularly failed here, including on landmark health-care legislation.
These debacles highlight that, while Trump has shown himself sometimes to be an effective – if unorthodox – campaigner, it is genuinely unclear what governing competence he will demonstrate as the first president since Dwight Eisenhower never to have held elected office previously. Despite the billionaire businessman’s claims of being a master dealmaker, the health-care saga underlines how different the national political domain can be from running a privately held conglomerate.
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The presidency provides Trump with at least two broad powers: setting governing themes, and creating coalitions among the public and within Congress in support of the administration’s legislative, and wider, programme. Trump’s effectiveness in setting governing themes and building coalitions of support will depend upon his ability to exploit two sources of power: the popular prestige of the presidential office and his reputation for leadership among members of Congress and senior federal bureaucrats.
Strong, effective presidents – Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for example – exploit each source of power interactively. Trump will have to show, and rapidly, that he knows how to do both, defying the expectations about him. Since he assumed office, the White House has too often appeared riven by incompetence and confusion.
On the domestic front, it looks likely he will now try to build around tax reform and potentially infrastructure spending, where there could be easier majorities in Congress to cultivate.
Beyond this, Trump also needs to use less polarising rhetoric and demonstrate greater reconciliation after the long, bitter election campaign of 2016. After a period of such rancour, the country may be more divided than in living memory, and he has disputed political legitimacy, especially in the context of the ongoing Russia investigations.
Moreover, there have been only four previous occasions when a winning presidential candidate lost the popular vote, as Trump did in 2016: in 2000 when George W. 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.
There is still time for Trump. In suitably skilled hands, the office offers potential for national renewal and unity at troubled times, and this remains true today, despite the massive political baggage Trump brings. The key test will be whether he is capable of working more effectively with Congress to forge a multi-year governing agenda that can bring the country together.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics