President Trump acts presidential

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 3, 2017


In his first visit to Congress, US President Donald Trump delivered a speech that was widely praised. Yet, the fact that Trump pleasantly surprised many observers by being more presidential than he has so far been does not mean that the head of state met the expectations of what a president should do when outlining his roadmap for his administration. Trump was too short on specifics, promised to increase spending and cut taxes without addressing how to tackle the deficit and committed to making the US a world leader while at the same time announcing that the US would retreat from its role as the leader of the world. It is true that, given that the very low expectations, Trump’s February 28 speech was a pleasant surprise. But, so far, the president continues to make grandiose announcements of tax cuts and spending increases that cannot be simultaneously funded, given the growing fiscal deficit.


Since winning the election in November, Trump has worked hard to surprise the establishment and the US public. As if his objective were keeping high approval ratings, Trump has notoriously abandoned some of his most controversial promises while pressing on with other equal divisive campaign commitments. Amid criticism that his administration is in disarray — given internal conflicts and the slow process of filling key government positions — Trump has responded by making provocative statements about other issues to divert attention away. As if he were still the host of The Apprentice, the popular television show he hosted from 2004 onwards, Trump seems to be governing for the ratings. Having generated interest on what kind of personality he would display in his speech to Congress — the combative Trump that tweets at odd hours or the presidential Trump that graciously accepted victory on the night of the election — Trump succeeded in creating suspense.


However, when measured against what would normally be expected of newly inaugurated presidents, Tuesday night’s speech was too vague on how the president will deliver on his most expensive campaign promises. Trump announced that he would promote a tax reduction on corporations and announced “massive tax relief” for the middle class. At the same time, the president announced an increase in defence spending, promised to leave no-one behind on Medicare (the health insurance scheme for 46 million retirees and nine million disabled US citizens) and announced that Medicaid (a health insurance scheme for some 70 million low-income Americans) would also be protected. Trump also announced a US$1-trillion infrastructure investment plan and repeated his promise to build a “great wall along our southern border.” He did not specify how he plans to pay for all that. Altough to be sure, he did talk about saving “hundreds of millions” of dollars in the construction of a “fantastic new F-35 jet fighter” and saving billions in government contracts. But no respectable economist can claim that simply by cutting government waste, the Trump administration will be able to finance a massive tax cut and spending increases.


On good behaviour

Yet, since Trump behaved much better in front of Congress and the nation than he has as president during his first few weeks in office, the immediate reaction after the speech was generally positive. The press, whom Trump has irresponsibly called the “enemy of the people,” offered a generally positive reaction to the speech. Despite Trump repeating some falsehoods about crime rate increases or suggesting that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit violent crimes, the press seemed relieved that Trump inched closer to acting like presidents are expected to act.


Unfortunately, neither the press nor fiscally responsible Republicans pointed to the obvious inconsistencies from a president who has failed to address one of the most pressing issues for the federal government: the growing fiscal deficit. Because in his previous weeks in office, President Trump had set the bar so low, a mediocre performance in his first speech before Congress was received as a hopeful sign that Trump can abandon his combative Twitter-troll persona and stick to the presidential style he displayed on Tuesday. Though that would certainly be welcome news, it would just be a first step towards fulfilling the long and complex list of duties that a president is expected to perform. Even if Trump insists that he is the leader of the United States — and not the leader of the world — the US cannot easily abandon its position as a world leader. After all, for the US to be great again, the president has to secure its position as the leader of a world committed to democracy and market-friendly policies.


Optimists are celebrating the fact that on such an important occasion, President Trump displayed presidential attributes. Yet, because presidents need to be presidential every day and not just when they speak to Congress, it remains to be seen if the sigh of relief heard from many observers on Tuesday night creates a new sense of confidence in Trump or if it will go down in history as just one more surprise move by the ratings-obsessed 45th President of the United States.