Before everyone starts hyperventilating about everything a US president is able to do (I may already be way too late here), George Friedman says we should sit back, relax, and remind ourselves of how severely constrained a US president really is.
Friedman has a big bucker of cold water ready to pour over both the over-excited Trumpeters and their opposite numbers who both think the position is one of dictator (benevolent or otherwise), with a reminder that, in Stephen Franks’s words, “The US Constitution was designed by a more worthy elite who expected the people to turn up an occasional Trump.”
Trump is a Man Who Gets Things Done. That’s his sales pitch. Yet the constitutional system delivered by founding fathers fearful of folk in power who Get Things Done was designed intentionally (if imperfectly) to limit the things those folk can do once they get near the reins of political power. This makes the American presidency something of a paradox,” says Friedman of The President’s Weak Position, a paradox because:
It is the most noted position in the world, imbued by observers with all the power inherent to the world’s most powerful country…
At the same time, the American president is among the weakest institutional leaders in Euro-American civilisation. He can do some things unilaterally, particularly in foreign policy, but Congress can block them. He can do some things by executive order, but the Supreme Court can overrule them. He can pass certain programs that require cooperation from states, but the states can refuse to cooperate. At every step, as the founders intended, his ability to act unilaterally is severely limited. The difference between how presidential power appears and how it is applied in reality is enormous.
So now, the most important question is not, what does Trump intend to do… but instead, what will Congress do?
And also, the Supreme Court. (How will they feel about all these executive orders pouring out of the White House?)
THE SEPARATION OF POWERS MAY be imperfect but, as Friedman outlines, it is important in understanding the limitations on what promises a leader can deliver (the limitations on Theresa May delivering her own pledges are a lesson in limitations, and for similar constitutional reasons). Friedman himself reckons Trump’s biggest battle will be with “his” Republican senate – which is his in name only and, with just a four-vote majority, lies on a political knife-edge strangely dependent on Trump’s poll ratings.
Under the Constitution, senators are not elected to rubber-stamp the president. They are elected to represent their sovereign states.. Three defections make it impossible to pass any proposed legislation. As such, any Republican senator who can position himself as a potential defector will be able to negotiate for the president’s support on any number of issues. The president will either be forced to compromise or risk having the legislation defeated.
Approval ratings Are key. Senators are not free actors. They need to be re-elected. Their calculation on whether to oppose a Republican president will depend heavily (if not entirely) on whether the president will help or hurt them in their re-election bids. That depends on the president’s approval ratings, particularly in the senators’ home states.
According to a Fox News poll taken just before Inauguration Day, 37% of those polled approved of Trump’s performance and 54% did not. And therein lies Trump’s problem and battleground.
Trump’s problem with “his” senators, says Friedman, is that this number is the lowest of any new president for the last hundred years, suggesting to senators keen on re-election that opposing rather than endorsing the president’s plans is probably their best bet.
This poses a problem for Trump’s administration. With these numbers, it is possible that more than three Republican senators could decide that rigid support for the president might cost them their political lives.
And that knife-edge right there poses a problem for America. Because as “public support wanes over the course of a presidency,” as it inevitably does, the temptation to populism will be ever greater, regardless of the damage that may be caused if those populist measures did sneak through.
So inevitably the policies finally enacted will be but a smaller random grab bag of those that are being announced, with no prior certainty as to which ones will finally achieve the necessary Congressional rubber stamps. All of them are possible, both bad and good; only politics will decide which.
BECAUSE PART OF THE PROBLEM here for any sober analyst is that so many are so good and so bad. It’s like two hands fighting against each other. On the one hand you have a president saying he’ll release the shackles on business and leash their productivity; on the other you see him bullying businesses to do as they’re told or else, and you see them cowering in the face of threats like border taxes and the like. On the one hand you say he’s going to help American manufacturers be more profitable; on the other that he’s going to whack up tariffs that make most of their inputs more expensive. It’s like a race between more freedom and its opposite, with no idea of which of either will eventually be upheld (if any), and which will prove more potent in making America either greater, or poorer.
Here’s just one example, cited by Peter Schiff: on the one hand, Trump announces he is going to “cut regulations by 75%.” (How? Somehow.) On the other, he announces he is going to impose “a very major border tax.” (How? Somehow.) Says Schiff:
Cutting regulations will be great, but a border tax will backfire. One of the pillars propping up America's bubble economy is cheap foreign imports. If Americans are forced to buy domestically produced products instead, living standards will collapse, as consumers buy a much smaller quantity of more expensive goods. Also massive tax cuts for the middle class would be great, but only if we also have massive cuts in government spending. There is no free lunch. If the middle class does not pay for all this government with taxes, it will do so though higher inflation.
Two mutually contradictory things cannot hold.
Thank goodness for the founding fathers.