Monday, May 1, 2017

BTRTN April 2017 Month in Review: 100 Excruciating Days for America

Our April Month in Review coincides with the 100-day mark of the Trump Administration, a much ballyhooed signpost of progress dating from the days of FDR.  Trump took great pains to diminish the importance of the milestone, which is reliable evidence that he actually knows things have not gone well for him thus far.  Simultaneously, and in nearly the same breath, he maniacally lobbed potential accomplishments against the proverbial wall as the 100 days counted down in the hope that something might stick.  Nothing did, unless you call backing down on your demands to avoid a government shutdown a “win.”

We will start with the numbers, shift to the big April news, and then reflect on the 100 days and where the Trump Administration goes from here.

THE NUMBERS

The most holy number in presidential politics, apart from Election Day results, is the approval rating.  Apart from being a daily scorecard on presidential performance by the American public, the approval rating is an indicator of the staying power of a president, his party and his policies.

Let’s start with this packed chart of approval ratings of recent presidents at key first-term milestones:

GALLUP APPROVAL RATING AT KEY 1ST TERM MILESTONES
First-term   President
Inaug. Day
100 Days (April 30)
Chng Vs Inaug.
Just Before Mid-Terms
Mid-Term House Change
Before 2nd Term Election Day
Trump
45%
42%
-7%
tbd
tbd
tbd
Obama
68%
65%
-4%
45%
-63
50%
Bush
57%
53%
-7%
63%
+8
48%
Clinton
58%
52%
-10%
46%
-54
54%

There are a number of takeaways from this chart.  Each of Trump’s immediate predecessors – Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama -- were reelected despite significant declines in their approval ratings from their Inaugural to Election Day four years hence.  And they won despite having approval ratings that were at the 50% mark, give or take. 

But each of the three started with a broad base of support, well over 50%, much higher than the percentage of people that voted for them, in part because they spent their transition periods “healing” the wounds of the electorate.  Trump did not do that and he did not see that increase, and in fact he started his presidency with an approval rating just below his popular vote percentage.  Clearly he made no effort to expand his support from beyond his base.  While his predecessors lost some of that new president sheen in time, each of Obama, Bush and Clinton held onto enough support to ensure reelection.  Whereas Donald Trump must actually win over people who have, essentially, never approved of him.

And after 100 days he has utterly failed in that quest.  His approval rating has dropped to 42%, and his disapproval rating (not shown) has risen from 43% to 52%.  He has won over no one, and lost more than a few.  After 100 days he remains 10-20 approval points lower than his predecessors, and this after a frenzy of activity that resulted in very little. 

Now let’s look at the midterm numbers.  The correlation is pretty clear.  Obama and Clinton were both in trouble by the midterms, clearly below 50% in approval, and each was clobbered at the polls in midterm elections viewed as referendums on them, each losing over 50 House seats and control of the House.  Bush, on the other hand, buoyed by his initial responses to 9/11, before the bloom was off the Iraq War rose, still enjoyed high approval ratings (63%) and this translated into midterm gains in the House (+8), which is practically unheard of for first-term presidents.

With his approval rating down to 42%, Trump is hardly out of the game.  But he is under water – his net negative after 100 days is unprecedented in the last 70 years (as was his <50% rating at this inaugural).  These 100 Days have been agonizing for all.  His opponents, while energized in opposition to him and heartened by his failure, have nonetheless had to endure his ascendency, his goals and his incompetence.  And his supporters, while sticking with him thus far, have clearly noticed that he has not taken Washington by storm.

Whatever one feels he has accomplished in this “honeymoon” period – and we will get to this – he has not made any progress in winning over the American people, and he has lost some.  And he has left himself in a position where breakthrough progress before the midterms will be exceedingly difficult, his hand filled with losing propositions and no-win situations, and the only decisions he can make are of the “best from a bad set of options” variety.

MONTH OF APRIL

After the March health care debacle, with April came an opportunity for Donald Trump, at least sort of.  Just when he needed a crisis overseas most to deflect attention from the TrumpCare disaster, both the Syrians and the North Koreans complied, the former by unleashing chemicals weapons on its own people, and the latter with escalating efforts at creating an intercontinental nuclear capability.

If ever one needed a tidy metaphor for the Trump response to these crises, or his “foreign policy” in general, look no further than the USS Carl Vinson, which appeared to be headed one way and was found to be going another.  With head-spinning flexibility that an owl would envy, the Trump Doctrine of “America First” was promptly shed in the face of Actual Events.  Far from embracing his campaign promise of a lesser global role for the USA, as he instead focused on the homeland, Trump – based apparently on an emotional reaction to pictures of dying, gassed children – lobbed a bunch of Tomahawks at a Syrian airstrip (much to the chagrin of the Ann Coulter’s of this world), dropped the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS rebels (his generals acting on their Trump-given autonomy), ratcheted up the tension level around North Korea and sent the Carl Vinson on its wayward journey.  So much for MAGA.

None of this seems to have made much of a difference.  Assad still does what he wants, ISIS is far from defeated, the Chinese are still reluctant to impose their economic will over North Korea and Kim Jong-Un keeps flinging test missiles into the Sea of Japan.  Trump recovered a few points in his dismal approval ratings by virtue of his so-called “show of strength” and the world wondered what would be the outcome of this existential version of “Mad Men” (a better title might be “The Real Mad Men of Planet Earth.”)

Along the way Trump abandoned his view of China as a currency manipulator, learned the hard way that Vladimir Putin cannot be “re-set,” that NATO was no longer obsolete, that the Export-Import Bank was a good thing, that NAFTA should not be cancelled, and on and on.  Upon meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss, among other things, North Korea, he admitted that “after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” echoing his epically na├»ve conclusion a month before that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”  Did he really think the world was so simple, that everyone was really so dumb as to ignore obvious solutions, that only he held the magic key to problems that had vexed heads of states for decades? 

April offered Trump one clear win – the appointment and Senate approval of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, though this came at the expense of the Senate As We Know It.  With only 50 votes now required to ratify justices to SCOTUS, we now have the formalization of the Era of Extremists Justices, in which justices will only be added when the President in power has 50 Senate votes as well.  And then that President will be free to add only latter day Scalia’s and Brennan’s, officially turning the courts into political parties who will ignore stare decisis and follow their own version of the Constitution.  Even “swing vote” justices like Anthony Kennedy (and before him, Sandra Day O’Connor) will disappear.

Apart from the Gorsuch win, Trump endured another mindnumbing set of humiliations in April, including:

·         Two much closer than expected House special elections to replace Trump-appointed Cabinet members, in safe GOP districts in Kansas and Georgia, one of which, Georgia’s 6th, resulted in a runoff and a potential flip in June.

·         Another failed Obamacare “Repeal and Replace” effort, in which the GOP developed a more conservative bill to win over the Freedom Caucus, only to discover that GOP moderate were even more unhappy than before (surprise!) – and thus once again realizing there was no point is holding a doomed vote

·         Tax reform got off to a difficult start, as Trump rashly decided to announce his own “plan” at the exact time his GOP colleagues were trying to avoid a government shutdown and muster votes together on the TrumpCare bill (on Day 97).  The resulting set of bullet points, which essentially would result in an income transfer from the IRS to Really Rich People to the tune of trillions, was widely panned by both parties

·         A shutdown was averted, mainly because Trump was forced to blink on securing funds for The Wall, and denying funds for Obamacare insurees, totally avoidable battles that Trump unwisely and futily joined in his quest for 100-Day “accomplishments.”

·         And, oh yes, the Russia investigation got ever closer to paydirt (a.k.a., a ”smoking gun”) with the unearthing of further insidious behavior by one Carter Page and the cesspool known as Michael Flynn, who, along with Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, may go down in history alongside E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell and Charles Colson (among others) as the men who brought down a presidency from within.

·         And finally, on the immigration front, yet another federal judge stymied Trump by overturning his attempt to deny funds to so-called sanctuary cities, and the travel bans remained on the shelf.

·         Did I forget to add that Bill O’Reilly followed Roger Ailes to ignominy, and FOX News – the most influential pro-Trump voice in the land – is in free fall? 

And, remarkably enough, April was a better month for Trump than March!

As if that was not all bad enough, The Trumpometer took a tumble from +3 to -11, driven by the news of a tepid Q1 GDP of 0.7%.  Trump cannot be blamed for the state of the Q1 economy, though he has claimed full credit for the post-election surge in the Dow, the declining unemployment rate and rising consumer confidence.  There is no partial ownership in this game.  We are officially in worse economic shape (if modestly) than we were on Inauguration Day, and it is on Trump to improve it.

"Clinton-ometer"        1/20/2001
"Bush-      ometer"        1/20/2009
"Obameter"      1/20/2017
"Trump-ometer" 3/31/2017
"Trump-ometer" 3/31/2017

25
-53
0
+3
-11
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
4.7
4.5
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
126
120
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.43
2.56
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
20,663
20,941
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
2.1
0.7


100 Days and Beyond

Donald Trump can point to three accomplishments in his first 100 days:  the appointment of Gorsuch, bowing out of the TPP trade deal, and rolling back Obama’s environmental Executive Orders with a stroke of his own pen.

Each “win” is qualified in some way:  the Senate had to use the nuclear option to push Gorsuch through, which will make it, as noted, nearly impossible to appoint moderate judges in the future; with respect to trade, he has yet to “cancel” NAFTA and instead will try to renegotiate it; and, in a similar vein, he has not followed through on a campus promise to withdraw (somehow) from the Paris Accords.  Thus, in terms of his campaign promises, these are all modified wins.

Do we really need to reprise the many failures along the way?  Trump’s 100 Days stand as a blueprint for squandered opportunities, amateurish handling of newly-won power, and appealing to the base rather than making any attempt to unify a nation.  When times are tough for Donald Trump, his instinct is to head for the road, reprise his campaign speech, recall Election Day glory, bask in the love of the undisappointable and pretend that words speak louder than inaction.  Maybe the base will tire of this, but as of now, they are still eating up the whole rancid stew.

But no one else is.  And that does indeed matter.  Presidential lack of accomplishment is merciless.  Even with the Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter failed in his reelection attempt.  Even with the wildly successful Gulf War, George H.W. Bush failed to win a second term as well.  Donald Trump needs a major win in the worst way, but thus far, his way (which is indeed, the worst way) has resulted in a string of embarrassing failures.  Topping the list are the whiffs on repealing and replacing Obamacare (twice) and his utter failure on immigration, with the series of judicial denials of successive travel bans and sanctuary city defunding.

Where does the Trump presidency go from here?

The presidential playbook calls for adjustment.  Learn from your mistakes.  Reagan learned how to orchestrate legislative deals by working with Tip O’Neill.  Clinton recognized the need for more discipline within his White House and jettisoned Chief of Staff (and childhood friend) Mack McLarty for old hand Leon Panetta.  Presidencies do wax and wane, and bad starts do not doom a presidency.  Trump is not a failure – yet.  But he has to demonstrate some ability to grow within the job (not the same as simply flipping positions) and figure out how to accomplish things, and his nearing-the-end-of-the-100-Days frenzy demonstrated conclusively that he has learned nothing to date.  The “tax plan” was, in fact, embarrassing, and more evidence that he has no capacity to change and grow.

From a legislative standpoint, Trump essentially must place all of his chips on tax reform, bad start or not.  This will be a long, complex process, with many competing forces at work within the Republican Party (as with health care).  He must also avoid a plan that requires 60 votes, and that is no mean feat, since he was denied the tax cut that replacing Obamacare would have brought.  That makes it harder for the tax legislation to be eligible for reconciliation (and thus only 50 votes).

Another tack would be to drop the Freedom Caucus and pursue bi-partisan legislative victories, perhaps by revising Obamacare or creating an infrastructure bill (one that actually spends money as opposed to providing tax credits).  But this would certainly risk infuriating the base with no guarantee of winning anyone over from the middle.

Or he could hope for an overseas crisis that he can win, a la Bush.  Bush 41 masterfully executed the Gulf War which was a huge boon to his presidency, albeit one that he could not sustain through a souring economy (and his out of touch responses to it).  Bush 43 responded well to 9/11 and was given the highest approval rating ever for his initial efforts, but his ill-fated pivot to Iraq and WMD almost lost him his second term and certainly consigned his presidency to the scrap heap.  Foreign crises are opportunities, to be sure, but as Bush 43 and Jimmy Carter can certainly testify, they are full of risk as well.  Cool, experienced heads – Eisenhower, Kennedy, the strategic side of Nixon, Bush 41 – tend to prevail.  Inexperience tempered by sheer intelligence and sound advice – Clinton and Obama – can prevent disasters and hold alliances together.  But unchecked inexperience – the messianic George W. Bush as Exhibit A – is disastrous.  Which model do you think Trump most resembles?

The shot across the bow for the Trump presidency, however, was the Q1 GDP report of only 0.7% growth.  While the job market remains strong, if it too softens, Trump will be totally on the hook to improve the economic fortunes of the country, his supposed wheelhouse.  He cannot preside over a worsening economy and win re-election.  The slowing GDP can give him ammunition in his tax “reform” efforts, but failure to stimulate the economy and a worsening economy would truly expose him as a fraud.

The Trump presidency must also navigate the infighting of his own top aides, the lack of a clear chief of staff to provide order, the ongoing Twitter madness, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along decision making style, the ongoing Russia investigation, murky conflicts of interest, the insanity of the “let’s give it to Jared” approach to every thorny issue, the reemergence of his failure to release his own income taxes in the context of his tax plan, and countless other self-inflicted obstacles to its own success.   His presidency could hinge, fundamentally, on whether he can impose any discipline or order at all on his own shop.  And since he is the least disciplined member of his team, that seems to be a tall order.

It doesn’t look good for Trump from here, as we count down to the mid-terms.















2 comments:

  1. I still think it's possible for there to be moderate Supreme Court justices. Consider 2016, with a Democrat president and a Republican Senate. The Republicans made a huge gamble with delaying the nomination until the election, and it paid off, but they could have played it safe and agreed to Garland as opposed to whoever Clinton would have nominated. This situation could happen again, and the Senate might agree to confirm a moderate instead of taking the risk that they lose control with a vacant seat.

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    1. It is certainly possible, but since public opinion was indifferent to the Garland gamble (that is, they elected Trump anyway), that type of gamble is more likely to be taken in the future, not less. But every situation is unique, your scenario is as good as mine.
      We'll see what happens! Thanks for the comment!

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