DONALD Trump defied most experts to win the presidential election.
His candidacy polarised the U.S. Americans either unconditionally supported him or fiercely loathed him. Trump’s campaign statements and promises cannot simply be dismissed as electioneering bombast. Words, character and persona matter. He raised the expectations of his supporters and earned the enmity of his opponents. He will now be judged on what he does as president.
Until Trump assumes office, observers can only speculate about his capacity to govern and be an effective president.
He faces many challenges that will test his authority. Campaigning and governing are different. Trump proved to be a successful campaigner, portraying himself as an outsider, a non-politician. The same approach will not work as president. Trump will need to balance many personal contradictions including being a beneficiary of the system he riled against to win the presidency.
American presidents have four main roles: head of state, head of government, party leader and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Each one of these roles has its own challenges, let alone the four combined. Successful presidents have managed to balance these conflicting constituencies.
If Trump lacks the necessary skills to govern, he will be a president without power. The U.S. political system has many checks and balances. None of the three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary – have power over the others. For legislation to become law, it must be passed by both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and be backed by the president. Dissent between Congress and/or the president ‘gridlocks’ the system – nothing happens, as has been the case for virtually the entire Obama presidency.
Trump has Republican majorities in Congress but this does not guarantee him support. Many presidents with Congressional majorities struggled or failed to have their agendas accepted. The success of Trump’s legislative agenda will depend on his negotiating skills and the extent to which his interests align with those of the Congressional Republicans. Trump is unlikely to win any support from Congressional Democrats who will resolutely try to stymie his agenda.
If Trump attempts to jettison trade deals, or raise tariffs on imports, or provoke a trade war with China, it is difficult to see Republican representatives and senators from districts and states dependent on international trade supporting him. Fearing inevitable voter backlash, no representative or senator will support policies harmful to their constituencies.
Presidents have a great deal of latitude in making foreign policy and this has generated much apprehension about Trump’s presidency. As Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Trump can deploy the military as he chooses.
This could have serious consequences in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. However, the foreign and defense policy establishment, namely the State and Defence Departments, the National Security Council and the Intelligence branches, will attempt to curb potential Trump excesses. There are some safeguards in the foreign and defense policy making machinery. Most notably, the president cannot activate the nuclear codes without the unanimous approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
American presidents do not have supreme power. Trump will not be able to act unilaterally. Ultimately, the trajectory of his presidency will largely be determined by, as Harold Macmillan said: “events, dear boy, events.”
Trump will likely be weighed down by the expectations of his supporters and dealing with the daily realities. He will have to manage what appears to be impossible, balancing the pressure from his domestic constituency to enact his election promises with the international outlook of the foreign policy establishment and America’s dependency on the global economy. Trump made many promises and commitments he cannot fulfil and this will diminish his authority.
Having touted his business credentials to win the presidency, questions remain about whether Trump has the skills to run an administration. His capacity to negotiate with Congress and manage the machinery of government, the huge Washington bureaucracy, will determine the effectiveness of his presidency.
Trump will not simply be able to order Congress and the bureaucracy to do what he wants. President Truman said presidents have the ‘power to persuade’ not the power to demand. Presidents command rather than demand authority. If Trump is to be a successful president, he will need to build relationships with Congress, the Washington bureaucracy, business, and foreign leaders, and not just with US allies.
During the presidential campaign, Trump displayed character traits and a temperament that suggest he will become frustrated with the constraints of office and struggle to articulate and implement policies and programs.
Trump may indeed prove adept at handling conflicting advice, possess the capacity for self-assessment, reflection and analysis, learn and grow in office, continue to defy the pundits and be a successful president.
How well will Donald Trump, property mogul and business magnate, do as the President of the United States? We will begin to find out from Jan 20, 2017.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent