Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Whether an artificial press construct or an important landmark in all presidencies, the hundredth day is always a period of assessment for new occupants of the White House. Donald Trump enters the week of his hundredth day with a mixed record on core campaign promises, and the realistic prospect of a government shutdown looming. It would be the first time that the Government has shut down when the same party runs the White House, Senate and House of Representatives, unless a continuing resolution (CR) can be passed by Congress to keep the government funded and open.
The chances of a shutdown ought to be slim. Trump cannot afford further personal defeats as the least popular president at this stage in modern times (42 per cent approval), though he remains relentlessly popular amongst those who voted for him (94 per cent) according to a Washington Post poll. Meanwhile, Congress’ own approval rating has averaged a paltry 18 per cent since 2016 (Gallup).
Since his inauguration, Trump has struggled to get much done in Pennsylvania Avenue, having failed in his one attempt to pass major legislation. Nervous bilateral press briefings with foreign leaders show a Commander in Chief still learning on the job. While Trump’s inexperience was lauded as a positive during the campaign, his lack of political savvy operating in the murky political waters of Washington has proven a hindrance. Of those who say Trump has not accomplished much, 47 per cent blame him, while only seven per cent blame congressional Democrats. Reading between the lines, those numbers clearly suggest Trump will be blamed for the shutdown if Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on issues of funding.
No one can question the president’s work ethic on the golf course, since he has teed off 18 times since taking office. Legislatively, he has been far more workshy, having championed no major legislation besides the American Healthcare Act. Trump has been a busy user of the presidential pen, signing over 30 executive orders covering a wide range of areas including financial services, environmental protection and immigration. But, just as Barack Obama’s legacy is being unpicked by the day, many of Trump’s own executive orders could undone with the signature of the next president. While Trump has appeared busy, much of what he has signed is cosmetic, and could eventually be retracted by his successor.
A refreshed Special Relationship, but hard work ahead
In January, Theresa May became the first foreign leader to visit the new president, and a reciprocal state visit remains in the offing. The Prime Minister was warmly received by the Republican Congressional leadership, while securing reassurances that the UK would be “at the front of the queue” for a bilateral free trade agreement.
Since then, Angela Merkel has confused the order of priority, after an official briefed The Times that she convinced the president that a US-EU deal would be easier to agree than a bilateral US-UK deal. However, it goes against the president’s preference for bilateral trade deals, one of his few genuinely consistent positions. Advocates of Britain’s new “global trade” mantra became worried that Merkel’s persuasive tactics had scuppered a lynchpin of the post-Brexit landscape. It should be considered little more than Brussels-based points scoring.
There is, though, an important reality to the prospect of a US-UK trade deal that neither side is willing to acknowledge in public. Substantive talks can only begin once the UK has left the EU in May 2019, by which time Washington will be entering campaign mode ahead of the 2020 presidential election. By the end of 2020 or early 2021, there will be a shared need for a presentational ‘win’ on trade. An agreement might be signed allowing the newly independent UK and the next or re-elected president to enjoy the optics of a trade pact, but that agreement is highly unlikely to cover any of the contentious areas of financial services or agriculture that would require serious political compromise. The optics will almost certainly outweigh the material substance of the deal.
May is popular in Washington and the Special Relationship will continue flourishing under this president and Congress. A newly appointed ambassador to the Court of St James’s will reaffirm that closeness in due course, as the two nations progress towards trade talks. Both governments have jointly welcomed the prospect of a bilateral free-trade agreement, and as Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, told a London audience last week: “The United States stands ready to forge a new trade agreement with Great Britain as soon as possible”.
Between now and 2020, that political goodwill will form the basis of our most important strategic, diplomatic and political allegiance. Thereafter, the material substance of a trade deal remains to be negotiated. It could be that the first FTA is signed as a symbolic mark of the future of US-UK trade, with the more politically tricky conversations still to come.