The Trump team is reeling after it pulled a landmark healthcare Bill designed to repeal the so-called Obamacare legislation from a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. The move is a major setback to the White House in its first major legislative test in Congress.
The episode highlights that, although President Donald Trump has shown himself to be an effective – if often unorthodox – campaigner, it is genuinely unclear what governing competence he will demonstrate as the first president since Dwight Eisenhower never before to have held elected office.
Despite the billionaire businessman’s claims of being a master deal- maker, Friday’s reversal underlines how different the national political domain can be to that of running a privately-held family conglomerate.
Healthcare, in retrospect, was a poor choice for the administration’s opening legislative gambit in Congress. There was significant popular, interest group and elite political opposition – from left and right – to Trump’s Bill, which the independent Congressional Budget Office estimated would lead to 24-million fewer United States citizens having health insurance over the next decade.
Although there is more than enough time for Trump to turn around his presidency, the partisan animosity and wider political challenges facing him means he is badly on the back foot.
This is underlined by his job approval ratings, which have fallen to 41% according to Gallup, one of the lowest of any sitting incumbent at this stage of a first term presidency in the post-war era.
Whether his tenure in the White House is ultimately judged as a success, or failure, will largely depend on the skill with which he now re-energises his administration and pursues a successful governing agenda, projecting what moral authority remains from his election victory last November.
The presidency provides Trump with at least two broad powers: that of setting governing themes for his administration and creating interactive coalitions among the public and in Congress in support of the administration’s legislative and wider programme.
Trump’s effectiveness in setting governing themes and building coalitions of support, which has been limited to date, will depend upon his political prowess in exploiting two sources of power: the popular prestige of the presidential office and his leadership reputation among members of Congress and senior federal bureaucrats.
Strong, effective presidents exploit each source of power interactively – as, for example, Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and 1940s and Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.
To make the presidency work most effectively, Trump will now have to show rapidly and with confidence that he knows how to do both, defying some expectations that are held about him by many voters and political elites.
Since he assumed office, the White House has too often appeared to have been riven by chaos, incompetence and confusion with, for instance, its apparently baseless claims of wiretapping on Trump by the previous Obama administration; legal setbacks to the administration’s hastily constructed bids to clamp down on immigration from several Muslim-majority nations, which appeared to lack a grasp for detail; and a potentially brewing scandal over the Trump team’s alleged ties with Moscow, which has already claimed the scalp of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
Moreover, it appears possible that Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, could yet face a bitter showdown in the Senate in April.