The United States’ economy is growing at a modest pace, with low unemployment and inflation. Normally, these conditions would strengthen a US president’s standing with the public. And yet Donald Trump’s approval rating is well below 40%, as one would expect to see during a recession.
Of course, Trump’s true popularity may be a little higher than the polls suggest, given that the same surveys failed to predict his victory last November. But even if Trump has maintained the support of his base, his post-inauguration honeymoon proved to be fleeting. Now, he is starting to lose the support of Republicans who had hoped that he would smooth his rough edges and grow once in office.
So far, Trump has failed to deliver any major legislative policy achievements. Nonetheless, he has helped the economy by rolling back President Barack Obama’s damaging regulatory and administrative diktats in areas such as energy, education, finance, and labor law. Moreover, even congressional Republicans who have distanced themselves from Trump’s more extreme statements – some even before his inadequate response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – still support his main policy proposals, and are relying on him to sign conservative legislation that Obama vetoed.
Whether Trump is in the Oval Office, on Air Force One, or at his Mar-a-Lago resort, he, like all presidents, resides in a giant bubble, where those around him usually tell him what he wants to hear. That is why it is so important that presidents have aides and advisers, both in and out of the White House, who are willing to tell them when they are veering off course.
By publicly rebuking his aides, Trump has made it even more difficult, but also more necessary, for those around him to tell him what he needs to hear. At this point, his administration’s top priority should be to develop more disciplined processes to ensure that the president is being given accurate information and effective policy options.
To that end, Trump’s decision to appoint John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, as White House Chief of Staff was an important first step. So, too, were the decisions to push out his hard-edged chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and to carry out a deliberative Afghanistan policy review, which changed Trump’s mind about US policy there. Kelly now fully controls the flow of information and people reaching the president. But it remains to be seen if Trump himself can be more disciplined.
One rarely gets a second chance to make a first impression. But such opportunities do sometimes present themselves for US presidents. Bill Clinton’s administration began with a lack of discipline, a failed attempt at health-care reform, and a loss for the Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections. But Clinton turned things around, appointing new aides, moving toward the political center, winning reelection in 1996, and working with a Republican-controlled Congress to balance the budget and reform welfare.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan endured large Republican losses in the 1982 midterm election. At that time, the US was in a deep recession, owing to the Federal Reserve’s tough disinflation policy, which Reagan had supported. But the economy made a strong recovery, helped by Reagan’s tax cuts and increased military spending. In 1984, Reagan won an overwhelming reelection victory. Jimmy Carter’s administration, by contrast, never overcame its problems, and is now regarded as a dismal failure.