Donald Trump still has time to make his presidency great again

On the first anniversary of his election, Trump faces the worst approval ratings in modern political history. He has no choice but to change course

David Usborne
New York
Tuesday 07 November 2017 17:57
Donald Trump supporters campaign in California, in the run up to the US election in November 2016
Donald Trump supporters campaign in California, in the run up to the US election in November 2016

At the time of Donald Trump’s shocking victory one year ago today, it seemed to his detractors that there could be only one thing worse than his presidency becoming the mortifying train wreck they were expecting. That his presidency would instead turn out to be a roaring success.

I still remember the conundrum. Was it stupid, unpatriotic even, to wish him ill? But my liberal friends, in mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss, were having none of it. Trump a fine president? Don’t make me laugh, or rather cry. I wrote one column advising Democrats on the Hill to get over themselves and cooperate with him. I was accused of losing the plot, even before it had really started.

For now, those friends have been spared the worst. If we say something is “textbook” Trump, it’s not a good thing. Textbook Trump is facing a crisis and making it worse with provocation and insults. Calling Kim Jong-un “little rocket man” when a nuclear catastrophe actually seems possible. Firing your FBI director because he is investigating you. Expressing admiration for the President of the Philippines, never mind the serial human rights violations he’s responsible for.

Textbook Trump is the president taking the hand of those who could actually help him, like his own party with majority control of both sides of Congress, and biting it. Or feeling embittered with the media and responding not with attempts at conciliation but with threats and bile.

Let’s not bicker about whether or not Trump is a disaster. The economy remains strong, but the foundations of that were laid by Barack Obama. The first anniversary polls tell a sobering story. Almost six out of 10 Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing, according to latest ABC/Washington Post survey. Only 37 per cent approve of his performance. No one has fared worse at this early stage of a presidency going back to Dwight Eisenhower. Even his base is fraying.

But it is still early. So let’s make the case that Trump still has time to get his presidency back on track. There are steps he can take and he knows he must, if not to have some chance of winning re-election in 2020 then at least to avoid a legacy of incompetence and humiliation.

Some he will resist on the grounds that his base have expectations. They elected him to upset the apple cart. But the test of leadership is to look your supporters in the eye and say, yes, I get you, but I’m going in this direction now because it is the better way to deliver what you need.

That Trump is capable of changing his plumage has been evident during his trip to Asia. To the relief of his hosts, he toned it down on North Korea. Gone was “fire and fury”, replaced by talk of a diplomatic settlement. “Come to the table” and “make a deal,” he said. Do we have the makings of Trump foreign policy doctrine? Wave the big military stick and seem ready to use it, then strike a deal that has eluded so many of your predecessors. Almost Reagan-esque isn’t it?

So, Mr President. Because you won a year ago today, this is the moment to stop with this Hillary Clinton nonsense, badgering the Justice Department to investigate her. It makes you look like an out-of-control autocrat. She lost! Likewise, find your own compass for government and stop measuring progress according to how many of Obama’s achievements you can destroy. Building is so much more satisfying than dismantling. You’re not a 10-year-old with an air gun.

Donald Trump attends a state dinner hosted by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in

From Pyongyang to the Paris Accord and Nafta. Again, you have scared the heck out of your allies and maybe you are right that some deals struck by your predecessors could stand improving. An extremely complex trade pact between the US, Canada and Mexico, Nafta is almost a quarter century old, so updating it might be smart. But again, improve good, destroy not good. Don’t tear stuff up. Take the hint dropped by France this week and attend the climate change summit in Paris next month. And reverse course on the Paris Accord, because a report issued by your own administration this month said climate change is the work of mankind.

Use your newfound spare time from ditching Fox and closing your Twitter account paying more attention to detail. The swamp you promised to drain is soggier than ever. Start by removing Ivanka and Jared from the White House. And what’s the general fetish? It’s unhealthy. Keep Mattis and McMaster at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, but give Kelly a ticket to retire. He has turned out to be a reinforcer of some of your worst instincts.

Get serious about Congress and nurture bipartisan support for your agenda. You praised the first healthcare reform deal cut in the House and then a day later called it “mean”. No one on the Hill trusts you. Not Democrats, but not many Republicans either. Take some political risks. Obama couldn’t do anything substantial about America’s gun scourge because he was the devil to the NRA. But maybe you can. Admit that building a wall along the whole US-Mexico border is a non-starter and assign the money to the infrastructure-building programme you promised. Get a tax deal done that does not favour the already-rich and nudge along a bipartisan solution on healthcare. Obamacare is not sacred, it needs improving too. Improving, not eviscerating.

None of what we’re suggesting here need negate your brand. You can be part of multinational agreements and still put America first. You can work with Democrats and still put America first. It is even possible to put America first and yourself second.

So finally, take a few hits on your own ego in the short term. I’m guessing you have confessions to make. Give us your tax returns. Go on TV, a live broadcast from Mar-a-Lago (even the Oval Office) and tell us the worst there is about you and your campaign’s ties to Russia. Robert Mueller is going to find out anyway, so get ahead of him. Clear the cloud of scandal that is choking your presidency and casting a shadow across the nation. How bad can the truth be?

Well, possibly it is really bad, in which case ignore all the above. Never mind your legacy or even re-election. You might not even make it through a whole term. But otherwise, get it out there and own it. You still have time to make the presidency great again. Even yours.

Alternatively, ignore all the above and continue to make dog’s ear of just about everything because that way you will make a whole other constituency happy: the liberals clamouring for you to fail. Or for your impeachment. Your choice.

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