US Election 2016: The biggest challenges facing President Donald Trump in his first 100 days

Donald Trump has some big issues to to tackle when he takes office in January

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 08 November 2016 11:09 GMT
Donald Trump must pick the right team to help him tackle the economy, foreign policy and health
Donald Trump must pick the right team to help him tackle the economy, foreign policy and health (Getty)

All new presidents face a formidable workload, no matter what their level of experience, and no matter that they sit at the command of the planet’s largest economy, most formidable armed forces and atop a vast bureaucracy that can offer plentiful, if not invariably wise, advice.

Now that one of the bitterest campaigns in history has drawn to a close, here are some of the more pressing demands that will face President Trump. It is a somewhat overflowing in-tray.

1. Overstretch

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Korea, the South China Sea, Europe, Nato, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the stability of the Gulf states, the dollar as sole international reserve currency, the US Treasury as lender of last resort to the IMF and the global financial system... the list of US obligations to the rest of the world is formidable.

You’d probably have to go back to Ancient Rome to find a similar dominance of a single world power; not even the British Empire at its Victorian high noon commanded such a position of global prominence. From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, indeed.

Yet the underlying reality behind defence and foreign policy is that America is no longer so economically strong that it can do everything in foreign policy and in fighting wars and nation-building that it would wish.

America has long suffered from strategic overstretch, and Trump will need to rationalise and re-order American priorities to match its material resources and the will of the American people to be involved in costly foreign conflicts. President Obama was the first president to acknowledge this drain on America treasure and blood. That reality has not changed with the election.

2. Isis

The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria stands as testament to the failures, for whatever reasons, in policy of the last two presidents. There are many issues for their successor to confront, but they can be summarised as follows:

How much co-operation with Russia and Syria’s Assad regime is wise? There was much rhetoric during the presidential election campaign about whether Isis is a greater or lesser evil, but now the reality and the responsibility of what is happening in Syria is the responsibility of a new incumbent at the White House.

Islamic State is 'On the Defensive' in Iraq and Syria - Obama

How to deliver humanitarian relief to besieged Aleppo? Again, this requires a degree of co-operation with the forces on the ground, which means the Assad government and its Russian allies. The refugee crisis and the movement of people into Europe – the largest such flow across the continent since the end of the Second World War – continues to destabilise the European Union and America’s allies. American policy is central to that.

How to achieve stability in Iraq? As insoluble as ever, sadly.

3. Russia

The most important and fractious bilateral relationship in American policy is especially difficult here, as both possible approaches to Russia carry their risks.

If America appeases Russia then it loses prestige and influence among its allies, and Russia will not necessarily respond in kind, or in kindly fashion, to an American policy of laissez-faire towards Russia’s ambitions and interests.

Thus an American-led West would have to countenance further Russian incursions in the Caucasus – Ukraine and Georgia – and menacing moves on the Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Turkish President keeps Vladimir Putin waiting

Trump could choose to “draw a line” at the boundaries of Nato and/or the European Union, which would help secure Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, all historically part of the USSR and/or the Russian Empire.

Or not, in the interests of a wider partnership with the Putin government. It would be the most substantial retreat in American policy since Vietnam, and vastly more significant.

Alternatively the US could continue to impose tougher and tougher sanctions on Russia, recall President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the “evil empire”, and challenge Moscow where it feels Russia is destroying human rights and the right to self-determination of smaller peoples and nations.

That, though, does risk nuclear war, or at least a new Cold War. Both appeasement and anti-appeasement, then, have their limits, and risks.

4. The economy

America continues to live beyond its means, allowed to do so by the rest of the world’s willingness to hold vast quantities of American IOUs. On that basis, too, America has been able to support both its own broken banking system and that of the rest of the West.

The US Treasury carries the dollar and the dollar carries everything else. Yet many economists believe this “exorbitant privilege” that the US enjoys for running the world’s only reserve currency is not sustainable. In short, Trump ought to:

  • Invest in America’s sagging infrastructure (such as roads and bridges) and education to revive its traditional supremacy in productivity;
  • Open up trade, though this is politically difficult, for longer-term gain, and make the case for migration;
  • Publish a plan to return the federal finances to some kind of balance;
  • Start talking to China, Japan and the Gulf states about recycling the huge quantities of dollar-assets they hold – before there is a crash;
  • Encourage Germany to reform the Eurozone system to remove parallel threats in that part of the world.  

5. Healing at home; race

Black Lives Matter protest: Video of activist being arrested

A half-century on from the Civil Rights Act and late into the second term of the first black president, and America’s racial divisions were violently exposed over the past year.

Policing, voter registration and a widespread insecurity about job discrimination and differential rates of poverty are challenges no president can or should ignore. All should agree that “black lives matter”.

6. China and North Korea

Since the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Korean War almost seven decades ago, successive generations of the Kim family have proved an irritation to American governments.

In recent years, though, its erratic behaviour is being matched by alarming progress towards the acquisition of nuclear missiles, with the possibility that these could have such a range as to threaten US territory, as well as crucial allies South Korea and Japan.

Coupled with a more assertive Chinese policy towards its sphere of influence in the South China Sea, it makes American overstretch feel increasingly acute. The strange Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte is also doing his bit to make it difficult for the US to keep the peace in the region.

A strategic partnership with China – reprising the famous “Nixon Goes to China” initiative of 1972 – might be the best way to counter a pointlessly hostile Russia and de-toxify a part of the world that, though little covered, has the capacity to slide into war over tiny scraps of coral reef, albeit with oil under them, almost without anyone noticing.

That said, even the Chinese, its only friend in the world, hasn’t much leverage over Kim Jong-un.

7. Iran, Cuba, Turkey, Mexico and other relationships

Given the other demands on America's resources, and patience, completing the normalisation of relations with Iran is an aspiration.

Cuba and other peripheral worries should be high on Trump’s list of priorities as “easy fixes”, continuing where Barack Obama left off, and, as in Turkey, reviving strong alliances that have become strained, if only with some well-judged visits and diplomatic initiatives.

On Mexico, there will need to be some sort of better agreed policy on migration, whatever is decided about physical or other barriers.

8. Personal legal issues

Should any of the campaign embarrassments return to disrupt his presidency, Trump might consider delegating the management of them to someone senior in their office, to ensure that the vital work of the executive is not distracted by, in the great scheme of things, minor issues.

9. Congress

The decline of the spirit of bi-partisanship and the polarisation of politics means that whichever party happens to nominally control the Senate, in particular, or the House of Representatives, relations with The Hill will be delicate and difficult.

Lyndon Johnson was the last president who understood the legislative arm so well that he could bend it to his to will by a mixture of cajolery, threats and bribes. These are skills that will need to be revived in today’s less clubbable environment.

10. The Supreme Court

From abortion to civil rights to bailing out Wall Street, the rulings of the Supreme Court matter, to America and the world – and there is a vacancy that needs filling. The decision will tilt the attitude of the Court towards more or less liberal attitudes in social affairs.

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland back in March to replace the conservative justice, the late Antonin Scalia. The Republicans in the Senate have stubbornly refused to ratify him, but the winner of the election should have the moral authority to at least try again, or otherwise end the deadlock with a fresh nominee.

11. Appointing your team

As Harry S Truman (president from 1945 to 1963) said, “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Cabinet appointments, and in particular the secretaries of the Treasury, of Defence, of State, of Homeland Security and the National Security Adviser, are crucial ones that will determine the success or failure of a presidency.

A new president might also want to take a look at the leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Such are the scale of America’s troubles that an “imperial” presidency, with one figure and a few key advisers determining affairs may not even be possible, let alone desirable.

Giving the Vice President something useful to do also helps relieve strain in the administration; Dwight Eisenhower made Vice President Richard Nixon a sort of roving ambassador to fight the Cold War, while President Bill Clinton gave Vice President Al Gore the environment to look after – both excellent precedents.

12. Managing expectations: the inaugural speech

To be sorted out by inauguration day, 20 January 2017. This sets the tone for the presidency; offers what President George HW Bush called “the vision thing”; and orders the priorities. Memorable phrase-making helps.

Franklin D Roosevelt reassured America in the depths of the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, before shutting down the banks for a week; Kennedy declared in 1961: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Stirring. Today the truth is that America is neither able nor willing to “bear any burden”.

So most of all the 2017 version of this speech will need to tell America, and the world, what the 45th president can, and – more important – can not, do to promote peace and prosperity.

In the words of Jimmy Carter (1977-81): “Always to tell the truth in a sometimes blatant way, even though it might be temporarily unpopular, is the best approach.”

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