Politics & Policy

The Yin and Yang of Trump

President Trump speaks at Homeland Security headquartrs in Washington, January 25, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
So far, the new president has given us better policies and worse behavior.

It’s hard to judge a presidency on its first few days, but so far President Donald Trump looks, sounds, acts, and behaves an awful lot like candidate Donald Trump.

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For conservatives, this state of affairs has its upsides.

In the coming week, Trump is expected to name his first nominee to the Supreme Court, and the two jurists rumored to be finalists — Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals judge Neil Gorsuch and U.S. District Court judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania — should have those on the right doing cartwheels. Many conservatives wary of Trump as a candidate justified their support for him on the grounds that he would pick better Supreme Court justices than Hillary Clinton. If things shake out as the rumors suggest, the president will soon vindicate that argument.

Pro-lifers were given reason to cheer when Trump restored the Mexico City policy by executive order, ensuring that family-planning funds can once again go only to groups that agree not to perform abortions or lobby foreign nations to overturn their pro-life laws.

Small-government conservatives can get behind the new administration’s federal hiring freeze — a short-term step that will have only a marginal effect on the size and cost of government, but will send a critical signal to the bureaucracy that business as usual is over. After showing pro forma support at best for cutting the size of government on the campaign trial, Trump is rumored to be preparing a budget proposal that will take an axe to programs conservatives have derided as corporate welfare.

On immigration, Trump has directed federal agencies to use existing funds to start construction on a wall along the border with Mexico, and has formally called for the hiring of an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 immigration officers. (Congress will have to appropriate the funds to pay the new hires and complete construction of the wall.) He has also ordered a halt to federal funding that goes to hundreds of “sanctuary cities,” which have pledged not to cooperate with federal law-enforcement efforts to deport illegal immigrants.

Trump’s initial executive order on the Affordable Care Act is broad and vaguely worded, but if confirmed as health and human services secretary, Tom Price could issue a blanket hardship exemption to anyone who does not own health insurance, effectively repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate.

Speaker Ryan is pledging that a tax-reform bill will be done by August. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, among others, thinks corporate-tax reform could spur a private-hiring spree. “I think you will see people begin to open up the purse book and begin to invest at a higher level,” he said. Even if the expansion plans recently announced by GM, Walmart, Amazon, and other large companies are aimed at currying favor with the new president, constant news of new job creation can only fuel more economic optimism. Time will tell whether a genuine economic boom is on the horizon, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average just passed 20,000; it’s up 1,667 points since Trump’s election in November.

All of the above policy decisions are good news for conservatives. But Trump’s personal downsides should not be ignored. After a perfectly fine inauguration, he was apparently driven into a rage after watching press reports declare that the attendance for his inauguration was significantly lower than the one for President Obama’s in 2009.

Over the objections of his aides and advisers — who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency — the new president issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary.

Why? Does a president get fewer vetoes if the crowd at his inauguration doesn’t reach a certain level? Crowd size has absolutely no practical impact on anything related to the presidency, other than the president’s ego.

Which of course, was enough in this case.

The 2016 presidential race between Clinton and Trump is now followed by a different kind of race: one between Trump’s decisions and his behavior.

After Sean Spicer’s unconvincing, cringe-inducing performance in his initial appearance as White House press secretary — with its “alternative facts” about the crowd-size spat — Trump delivered solipsistic, rambling, inappropriate remarks in front of the CIA Memorial Wall. He followed that by claiming, in a bipartisan meeting with congressmen and senators, that 3 to 5 million illegal voters cast ballots for Clinton, costing him the popular vote. When one of the Democrats at the meeting objected to this ludicrous accusation, Trump cited an anecdote supposedly from golfer Bernhard Langer — a German citizen — about standing on line at a polling place and seeing “voters who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote” but who were “nonetheless permitted to cast provisional ballots.”

Thus, the president of the United States heard a secondhand tale of people who don’t look like they should be allowed to vote — how would you even tell a legal voter from an illegal one at a glance? — voting, and concludes that 3 to 5 million votes were cast illegally for his opponent.

Perhaps most worrisome of all, a considerable number of people close to Trump say he needs to be managed, and that his actions and decisions are all too easily influenced by what he sees on television:

One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.

The 2016 presidential race between Clinton and Trump is now followed by a different kind of race: one between Trump’s decisions and his behavior. His policies should make the country better, if not universally recognized as “great again.” But his temperament, lack of impulse control, and tendency to blurt out the first thought that pops into his mind will embarrass the country, generating needless controversies and an endless series of distractions from any good news.

Trump’s presidency may hinge on which of these two aspects of his leadership defines him in the eyes of the public.

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