President Donald Trump wore a non-sparkly tie last night. His suit fit. He seems to have upgraded his haircut too. After some initial hesitation, Trump found something positive to say about Black History Month and something negative about anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Better still, Trump worked his way through more than an hour of television without insulting or demeaning anyone. He did not mention his crowd sizes, argue about his vote margin, or attack the press. Although he again trafficked in misleading or deceptive statements, he eschewed outright lies.
Different people will have different reactions to Trump’s spotlighting of a Navy SEAL’s widow to immunize himself against accusations that he cavalierly and ignorantly ordered troops into a poorly considered combat mission—but clearly, many TV viewers found the moment inspiring and affecting.
These limited but real accomplishments elicited a barrage of praise from cable and social media commentators last night. Donald Trump: presidential at last!
In the light of morning, it’s time for a colder review. Trump did achieve something last night, and something important. But he failed to achieve three other things that are even more important to his presidency—and those three failures will matter much more in the days ahead.
The first failure: There’s still no coherent agenda.
The purpose of these joint-session speeches is not, actually, to reassure the president’s base that the leader of the country is mentally well. The purpose of the speeches is to mobilize support in Congress and the country for the president’s legislative plans. President George W. Bush’s 2001 address argued for his tax cut. Barack Obama’s in 2009 defended and advanced his recovery program.
Donald Trump omitted to do anything like that. On every one of the issues dividing House from Senate Republicans—tax reform, healthcare, immigration—Trump avoided so much as indicating a preference, let alone leading the way. His line about Israel-Palestine (“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”) also seems to apply to the issues before Congress: You guys sort it out.
Health care? If Obamacare is repealed, millions of people will lose Medicaid coverage, including many Trump voters in states like Ohio and Kentucky. What does the president propose to do about that? His answer is contained in one single sentence: “We should give our great state governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.”
Tax reform? Donald Trump endorsed “massive tax relief for the middle class.” No such relief is offered by the various plans circulating in House and Senate. House Speaker Paul Ryan in fact is touting a “border adjustment tax” that (while an elegant solution to inefficiencies created by the present corporate income tax) would have the side effect of increasing costs of everyday goods like clothing, shoes, and consumer electronics.
Immigration? Senators Cotton and Perdue have introduced in the Senate exactly the kind of immigration reform Trump supposedly favors. Its most important feature—lowering the absolute level of immigration—went undiscussed.
Infrastructure? Trump said he would soon ask Congress for a $1 trillion public-private program. How would it work? What would it do? Why should Americans support him? All went unargued.
As Paul Ryan told Today’s Matt Lauer on the morning of the speech, Trump acts more like a chairman than a president, assigning the real work of leadership to others. The trouble is, the system cannot work that way. Without presidential leadership, House and Senate Republicans cannot agree, laws will not pass, and entropy will win. The February 28 speech ominously indicated that leadership continues to be unforthcoming.
The second failure: There’s still no plan to build a majority coalition to support a Trump program.
Donald Trump’s fierce need for approval has disabled him from acknowledging the strategic fact of majority disapproval. Fifty-six percent disapproval is not an insurmountable obstacle. But how can a leader surmount a difficulty that he insists does not exist?
In 2001, President Bush—elected with a narrow popular vote deficit—reckoned with the enduring popularity of the Clinton economic program by promising that his tax cut would leave the essentials of that program intact. In 1993, Bill Clinton—who had won only a 43 percent plurality of the national popular vote—responded by adopting Ross Perot’s concerns with debts and deficits as his own.
Donald Trump’s political plan, by contrast, continues to be premised on the idea that he commands a big latent pool of public support, awaiting only activation and mobilization by him. Unlike Bush’s No Child Left Behind program or Bill Clinton and his support for NAFTA and the death penalty, Trump’s offer to those who did not vote for him continues to be—like Michael Corleone in The Godfather—“Nothing.”
Michael Corleone had the clout to compel acceptance of that offer. Does Trump? A year from now, millions of Hillary Clinton voters may face the imminent loss of Medicaid coverage. They could be paying higher prices at Wal-Mart (thanks to Ryan’s border-adjustment tax) in order to finance a tax cut for upper-income America. If Trump’s hopes for rapid job and wage growth have come true, he may get away with it. But if not, he will have no answer at all to those voters’ grievances, especially if they feel themselves to be on the receiving end of Trump’s angry cultural politics. Numbers are not everything in American democracy. Trump’s election by itself proves that. But numbers do matter, and a lot. Trump’s plan to deal with the weight of numbers against him remains a long-odds gamble that this already seven-year-old economic expansion will now accelerate rather than—as history suggests—soon come to an end.
The third failure: The scandals accumulate unanswered.
It may someday seem highly symbolic that Donald Trump delivered his first joint session speech on the same evening that his sons Don Jr. and Eric, and daughter Tiffany, had traveled out of the country to open the Trump family’s newest hotel: a project built and financed by the son of a Malaysian plutocrat with a criminal record.
Suspicions of ethical violations and foreign-espionage penetration overshadow the Trump presidency. On the Monday before Trump’s big speech, Sean Spicer expressed angry frustration at the refusal of the press to accept Trump’s pledged word for it that there was “no there there” to the Russia connection story. By now, of course, no self-respecting journalist accepts Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated word for anything—or Sean Spicer’s, either.
Last night would have been the perfect occasion to call for an independent inquiry to vindicate Trump from unfair insinuations that his team colluded with Russian espionage to sway the 2016 election. If Donald Trump were conscientious, last night would have been a magnificent opportunity to review progress toward disentangling himself from the Trump business and erecting the ethical firewall his team again and again have promised to the American people.
But here, too, the gamble is: Plunge ahead and hope that nothing too damaging comes to light. Through his long business career of big risks, big failures, and big recoveries, that gambling instinct has propelled Donald Trump forward. It makes sense that he manages his presidency the same way. But never before has he faced such dangerous consequences if his gamble goes wrong. And this time, the people who will pay such consequences are not only Donald Trump’s unfortunate investors, lenders, suppliers, and workers—but the whole of this great nation and its truest friends abroad.
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