STANFORD - The United States’ economy is growing at a modest pace, with low unemployment and inflation. Normally, these conditions would strengthen a U.S. president’s standing with the public. And yet Donald Trump’s approval rating is well below 40 percent, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 re-election 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 U.S. 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 re-election victory. Jimmy Carter’s administration, by contrast, never overcame its problems and is now regarded as a dismal failure.
Upon taking office, all U.S. presidents soon realize that their domestic and economic policymaking authority is constrained by Congress and the courts, but that they have much more sway over foreign and national-security affairs. Trump, for his part, has made a point of being more forceful than Obama with allies and foes on security matters. With North Korea making alarming strides in its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, Trump’s approach is undergoing its first real test.
Here, President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis provides the best analogy. The Kennedy administration stumbled badly when it tried to destabilize Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba — an effort that culminated in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But by standing firm against the Kremlin, Kennedy brought the crisis to a peaceful end: the Soviet Union removed its nuclear missiles from Cuba and the U.S. quietly removed its missiles from Turkey.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is undoubtedly operating according to a different political calculus than the Soviets, and the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula is even more daunting than in Cuba. North Korea has a large conventional arsenal that could rain down havoc on 10 million South Koreans in nearby Seoul. Still, if Trump’s firm response ends up being successful, it could widen his appeal.
Trump’s actual decisions matter far more than his confrontational behavior. But his behavior can still affect the options that are available to him. If his public approval sinks too low, fewer members of Congress will work with him, and more will work against him. Moreover, his remarkable penchant for overshadowing good news with unrelated Twitter attacks allows an overwhelmingly leftist, unsympathetic media to overemphasize his personality, while ignoring his administration’s substantive successes.
For example, earlier this month, while many were fixated on Trump’s rhetoric, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson secured United Nations Security Council approval for increased sanctions on North Korea, and China said that it would curtail its imports from the North. Soon thereafter, North Korea called off planned test launches of missiles that it had threatened to aim at the waters around the U.S. territory of Guam.
Politically, America is deeply polarized. But on most issues, Americans want common sense solutions to real problems, with government playing a limited role in their lives. Trump has an opportunity to cut taxes, improve U.S. infrastructure, and replace or amend the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). To succeed, he needs to demonstrate respect for reasonable opposing viewpoints and tone down his more extreme positions to broaden his popular support.
But, above all, he needs to cooperate with Congress, just as Reagan and Clinton did. If he does that, he could turn his presidency around, confound his critics and leave a positive legacy. Can he?
Michael J. Boskin, a professor of economics at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, was chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993. © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org