by Reginald Dale
Fri 21 Sep 2018
When Donald Trump was elected wise Washingtonians tried to reassure anxious foreign friends; 'Watch what he does, not what he says.' It was good advice, and still is. So is the corollary: Don't be too influenced by the non-stop attacks on Trump by his political opponents and most of the media,' who want to delegitimise his presidency.
Trump's media coverage in the US has been overwhelmingly negative and often geared towards his personality rather than his positions. The hostility is often echoed in European media.
He has provoked a lot of this by outrageous statements and deliberately picking fights with the press. And he is often, though not always, quite pleased with it. Most Trump supporters think of an unfair attack by The New York Times as a badge of honour.
Many of his opponents do not want to notice that Trump's relatively low ratings in the opinion polls are better, by some measures, than those of his predecessor Barack Obama in most of 2016. It remains an article of faith among much of the media that Trump is – must be – deeply unpopular.
Another aspect many of his critics have missed is that Trump is not the same man he was during the election campaign. He is learning how to be president. But the elitist perception of his presidency has been slow to move from assaults on his character to more studied analysis of his policies.
One reason Trump's performance has been less disastrous than many predicted is that he has appointed some accomplished cabinet members.
Another is that he seems to be listening to them, and is much more inclined than Obama to delegate authority. He often privately consults leading manufacturers, entrepreneurs and trade unionists.
Trump seems to be influenced by positive personal encounters. He has softened his stance on China, after getting on well with President Xi Jinping. We have learnt, according to The Washington Post, that Trump is 'a visual and auditory learner', which explains why he does not read long security briefings and still depends heavily on what he sees on TV.
The shocking pictures of child victims of chemical weapons in Syria were instrumental in his decision to launch a cruise missile barrage on an air base belonging to President Bashar al-Assad in April. The strike won more bipartisan support than any of his actions so far.
Trump has shown extraordinary readiness to volte-face on policy and change his mind as he continues to zigzag along the presidential learning curve. The changes have usually been in the right direction. He has not torn up the North American Free Trade Agreement, declared China a currency manipulator or slapped punitive tariffs on Mexican exports.
His foreign policy is becoming less erratic and more decisive-looking than Obama's frequently derided 'strategic patience'. Most of Trump's supporters know that his extreme statements are often intended to build a strong negotiating position and should not necessarily be taken literally.
He still has much to learn and can embarrass himself by his ignorance. A typical misstep came at the end of February, when he foolishly exclaimed, 'Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.' Well, yes, in fact everyone did.
Trump is discovering that his old business techniques do not work in the new world he is in. As president you cannot simply order your board or your subordinates to get something done. There is Congress, the courts and, as with his first failed attempt to reform Obamacare, rebellious members of his own party.
He has issued several regulations to change Obama's policies, though few of them have had dramatic impacts so far. But, unlike other presidents, Trump has failed to complete any major legislation in his first 100 days. His most important achievement has been confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, his Supreme Court nominee.
Trump's words, however, are powerful. His pledges to deregulate, cut taxes and boost business have caused the stock market and business confidence to soar. His tough statements on immigration have vastly diminished the flow of illegal aliens across the Mexican border. But these processes will go into reverse if he fails to deliver on his promises. The success or failure of his presidency will depend not on what he says but on what he does.
Reginald Dale was a Member of the OMFIF Advisers Network and a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council. He passed away on 18 September. A full obituary has been published by the Financial Times and can be read on the newspaper's website.
This article first appeared in the OMFIF Press book, Trump: The First One Hundred Days.
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