Now in its first summer, what is the future of Donald Trump’s presidency? Here are three possible scenarios.
It’s possible that Donald Trump will rise from his administration’s inauspicious beginnings to become a successful president and a dominant political force. A string of major policy successes along with changes in the president’s behavior would be necessary for his political rebound.
Legislatively, this means passage and popularity of the American Health Care Act, the GOP replacement of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Congress also then passes an extension of the debt ceiling, a fiscal 2018 budget, tax cuts and tax reform and a large spending bill to improve the nation’s infrastructure — all acceptable to and celebrated by the White House and large segments of the public.
Trump’s administration increases its pace of judicial and administrative appointments, and these appointments receive quicker congressional approval. In foreign policy, Trump’s trade policies produce better deals for the United States, ISIS suffers conclusive defeat and the threat of international terrorism abates. Trump also finds a way to contain North Korea short of regional war.
The president improves his twitter strategy, resulting in better media coverage. The avalanche of anonymous, damaging leaks abates as he enjoys policy successes. Trump’s popularity with political independents grows and for the first time in his presidency he enjoys majority public approval. Republicans hold Congress in the 2018 midterms and Trump arrives at 2020 in a strong position for re-election.
If Trump manages to rack up a string of congressional and foreign policy successes, change his tweet strategy, improve his media treatment and his White House management, he can dominate U.S. politics. This seems a long shot, because of Trump’s preemptive, seemingly unchangeable and contentious political style.
He remains a stranger to many GOP policymakers, an enemy to many in the media, and is anathema to practically all Democrats. His inexperience in office may well prevent the successes his presidency so sorely needs in legislation and foreign affairs.
But with a few breaks, more competence, better manners and maintenance of his “sweet spot,” a much brighter future might be his.
Decline and fall
This worst-case scenario begins with special counsel Robert Mueller recommending criminal charges against several members of the Trump campaign and administration for illegalities in their relationship with the Russian government. A deluge of negative media coverage ensues.
Trump, though not charged, faces cries for his resignation. Though the GOP Congress refuses to act on impeachment charges drawn up by Democrats, a “wave” election in 2018 produces Democratic majorities in the US House and Senate. The House majority votes approval of several articles of impeachment and the Senate either removes Trump from office with 67 Democratic votes or fails to convict.
If he survives a Senate impeachment trial, Trump then limps through the remainder of his term as a greatly damaged president, unable to effectively direct domestic or foreign policy. Though his tweets remains as tart as ever, his sympathetic audience shrinks far below his 2016 popular base.
Media coverage remains overwhelmingly negative. The 2020 election proves disastrous for the GOP, whether or not Trump decides to run for re-election. Along the way, foreign policy reversals on trade, North Korea and in the Middle East worsen Trump’s political standing.
Thus “many shoes have to drop” before Trump experiences a fall from office during his first term. His preemptive presidency, volatile personality, negative media coverage and a deeply polarized nation brimming with partisan “resistance” make this a greater possibility than any president since Bill Clinton has experienced. Yet in his first year in office, few if any of the conditions for his removal from the presidency are in place.
More of the same
Continuity is often a safe bet in life and in politics. What might produce a future trajectory for Trump similar to that of his first six months in office?
First, Trump’s base, the focus of much of his presidential persuasion, would have to stick with him. Since the president’s sweeping campaign promises on immigration, economics and trade are not very likely to become reality, “Trump nation” will have to demonstrate considerable patience as his term transpires.
Second, Democrats would continue to oppose and obstruct the president in Congress and in elections. That is certainly a safe bet, given the activities of the “resistance” since Election Day 2016. Democrats may have learned, however, that simply being anti-Trump is not a winning formula. That message did not help them win any of the four congressional by-elections during Trump’s initial months in office. Their new 2018 campaign slogan — “A Better Deal” — seeks to beat the presidential dealmaker at his own game.
Anonymous leaks and continuous stories about a quirky and peculiar Trump would continue to dominate the media. Over time, however, the effect of the media coverage changes fewer minds among the public. In a polarized America, many citizens choose media sources reflecting their partisan and ideological biases. After several months, media coverage serves to merely reinforce existing public divisions about Trump. The “news” about Trump doesn’t get better or worse in its content or political effect.
“More of the same” requires Republicans to retain control of Congress while Trump’s fellow partisans in the legislature work fitfully with a mercurial and inexperienced chief executive. The 2020 presidential election — with or without Trump — proves competitive. A wounded GOP candidate faces off against a decidedly liberal Democratic rival with the outcome very much in doubt.
How does the country fare with more of the same? The economy grows slowly but perhaps steadily, little progress is made containing the North Korean threat, deficits continue as the public debt grows. National health care policy remains replete with problems as Medicaid and Medicare costs inexorably rise. The nation’s infrastructure continues to be very much in need of repair. ISIS recedes but U.S. involvement in Middle East does not. Environmental policy remains in reverse from the Obama years. National tax reform remains an aspiration. The cultural civil war between identity politics liberals and social conservatives rages on.
Meanwhile, America remains acutely divided between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. The divisions ensure stasis, more of the same. Popular discontent and low trust in government persist as they have since the 1960s. Trump, the incendiary president, frequently fuels the conflicts but maintains a cantankerous course that fails to improve the prospects for his presidency or the nation.
Donald Trump’s highly unorthodox presidency features extraordinary levels of verbal swordplay, much generated by the president himself. The cumulative result of all the querulous verbiage may be remarkably modest. As Mark Twain said: “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Minnesota Lawyer.