Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Behind the daily distractions of a prickly president, is America working or are the wheels of government falling off?
On the face of it, America is a country that is increasingly divided, split by national politics that is impossible to ignore. Thrust into the limelight like a reality TV show, you can’t escape the Trump presidency or coverage of it. As a case study, just look at Trump’s appearance at Monday night’s National Championship college football game. He walked onto the field to a chorus of both boos and cheers. Afterwards, political Twitter obsessed over whether the President knew the words to the national anthem, furthering questions about his memory and mental capacity. It was a symbol of a country viscerally split by a president whose own political approach seems to be divide and conquer.
But is the permanent news cycle, jumping from one crisis to the next and dictated by the President’s morning tweet storms, distracted from a different story that underpins America in 2018?
The White House is a steadier ship (but Mueller won’t go away)
First, the White House is now far better staffed that it was in the first days of the Trump administration, having taken strides to professionalise internally. The Trump inner circle has been besieged with challenges – many of them self-inflicted – ever since the campaign was tasked with transitioning into a fully functioning White House operation. With few traditional Republican operatives wanting to go near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Trump White House lacked the political nous and expertise required to navigate Washington. Since the early missteps of Scaramucci, Priebus, Manafort and Bannon, highly-rated advisors like HR McMaster (National Security Advisor) and General James Mattis (Chief of Staff) have steadied the ship. The White House is still hardly a place of calm, with the President’s excesses proving impossible for any senior staffer or family member to rein in. In the background, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation remains ongoing and interviews are reportedly being scheduled with the president himself. That overhanging threat remains, but on a day-to-day basis with far better people around the President, the wheels of government are at much less of risk of falling off.
The relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill has drastically improved
Second, that Michael Wolff book, while undoubtedly suffering from several stretches of the truth, nevertheless confirmed many of the trends known of this president: little attention to detail; a short attention span; and a work-shy schedule with chunks of the day set aside for ‘executive time’ spent tweeting, making phone calls or watching cable news. This is no grand strategy, but simply an attempt by scheduling staff to keep the boss happy. While unconventional, the style of the CEO President does at least create a functioning operational framework. Executive hours replace time spent taking briefings, with the entire legislative agenda and the heavy lifting required to deliver delegated to Congressional Republicans. Legislative success depends on a working relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill. The rapport between Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan is now arguably at its highest point. From an operational perspective, Trump’s approach is certainly not normal relative to Washington customs. But a media frenzy caused over his schedule can seem overblown when it might just be working. More time for Trump to tweet and less time spent sweating the details of policy the President doesn’t want to engage with. Republican wonks on Capitol Hill get to pass the legislation they want, and both get to enjoy a bill signing ceremony at the White House at the end of the process. The relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill is key, and make no mistake it continues to improve.
The policy may not be universally popular, but the President is beginning to focus on delivering his agenda
Third, with the relationship improving between the White House and Congress, Republicans are beginning to deliver on their agenda. This will never be popular across the whole country. Given the President’s dire personal approval ratings – 40 per cent according to Gallup – and a policy platform the Democratic Party vehemently opposes, the left was always going to obstruct and frustrate where possible. Given their role as a functioning opposition, that is hardly a surprise or grounds for criticism. The President is at least now beginning to see the benefit of following through on his agenda, setting Congress goals and a timeframe to deliver them. Tax reform was passed, delivering short-term tax cuts to millions of Americans and permanent reductions to corporations. The trickle-down effects remain to be proven, but it showed a White House capable of focussing on more than just the latest hatchet job on Special Counsel Robert Mueller or the latest nickname like ‘Little Rocket Man’ or ‘Sloppy Steve’. The shape of the agenda has been increasingly shaped by establishment Republicans, putting the White House on a traditional Conservative trajectory. Not all Trump instincts have been tamed. On the campaign, he pledged to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it. Asking Congress for $18 billion in funding for the wall seems to have let Mexico quietly off the hook, but it is set to prompt a face-off with Democrats who despise the wall and instead want funding and guarantees for programmes affecting immigrants (DACA) and young people (CHIP). The demand for border wall funding could yet bring down the Government if a spending bill isn’t passed, but beside that the establishment wing of the Republican Party has outmanoeuvred the nationalist wing at nearly every step. The globalists are in the ascendency, whereas the extremists like Bannon have been thrown by the wayside and are looking for new jobs.
The underlying economics point to a country pressing on
Fourth, the main benchmark for success employed by Trump is economic data. It is correct to point to successive months of stock market gains, while in 2017 the number of jobs grew and the unemployment rate fell. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 per cent, and last year the US economy added more than two million jobs, although critics will point to the fact that that is the lowest level of annual job creation since 2010. The Business Confidence Index for the US is tracking higher than it was during the tail end of the Obama administration (though narrowly below the OECD average) and there is optimism that the deregulatory agenda will keep delivering for businesses in 2018. ‘Jobs’ was the key word for Trump when he travelled everywhere from Monessen, Pennsylvania to Detroit, Michigan on the campaign. If the numbers keep improving, he will keep congratulating his own economic success.
So how do we analyse this presidency in a New Year?
Taking a step back and looking at the Trump White House is a challenge, ignoring the daily Twitter outbursts and looking at the fundamentals that underpin the administration. Make no mistake, there is no grand tactic of presidential distraction, just the fundamental behaviour of a 71-year-old who is used to having his name on the building and refuses to change now he is the leader of the free world. The day-to-day focus of the press is inevitably the excesses of this President. This must-see chart illustrates exactly how the press corps jumps from one crisis to the next scandal. The focus of the press and the extent to which it has held the administration to account was one of the major highlights of 2016 and 2017, proving that no political leader or movement is beyond accountability. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have jointly never been so important. The pattern of daily fights on social media, allegations of “fake news” and sloppy slurs is a hard pattern to escape when there are so many. Occasionally it’s important to take a step back and look for a broader perspective. But for all the progress made on the underlying fundamentals of this presidency, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the whole house of cards could still come crashing down at any moment. One split second of anger or excess and the risks of a trade war with China or a nuclear war with North Korea suddenly re-emerge. You can make your own mind up about this presidency so far – unless you already knew you loved or hated the man long before you read this article.