Trump Should Get Off to a Fast Start – But Will He?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 10, 2017 · 8:00 AM EST

If you look only at Donald Trump’s recent “favorable” ratings, you might well think him politically weak.

After all, substantially more Americans continue to have an unfavorable opinion of him than a favorable one in post-election polls, and he lost the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.  

But Trump has some key assets, which give him the opportunity for a fast start.

First, while his support isn’t terribly wide – both his HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics “favorable” averages are just shy of 44 percent – it remains quite deep. His supporters show no sign of wavering, no growing doubts about his judgment or his style.

For many Trump voters, their candidate’s self-confidence and untraditional language identified him as someone who could get things done, and Trump’s early actions – including his threats to Carrier, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Ford, Toyota and the government of China – have done nothing to undercut that assessment.

In fact, Trump’s early engagement in matters both domestic and international – at the same time that President Barack Obama has all but checked out of the White House – make Trump look decisive and even successful.

Second, Democrats remain divided and uncertain how to proceed.

The party continues to fight over its future leadership, with progressives wanting Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) as chair of the Democratic National Committee, those in the establishment preferring Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and others preferring someone other than the two favorites.

This division makes Democrats look divided and weak, and the party clearly will be licking its wounds for the foreseeable future, or until the Trump Administration provides an opening.

Democrats had a considerable “brand” advantage over the GOP for years, but the latest poll numbers show that is no longer the case.

The HuffPost Pollster average shows 40 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, compared to 46 percent who have an unfavorable view. Those numbers are little different than the GOP’s 37 percent favorable/47 percent unfavorable.   

Those are not good numbers, but the fact that both parties’ brands are damaged gives a strong leader like Trump some additional leeway. (The uptick in the GOP’s brand may reflect new-found optimism among Republicans about the president-elect’s prospects.)

Third, new administrations invariably receive some deference from Congress, and Trump, because of his unusual agenda and odd positioning in his own party, has an opportunity to divide and conquer opponents if he plays his cards right.

House Republicans already reversed their decision to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics after widespread head-scratching from the media and a Trump tweet, and, except for a few hardy souls, most Republicans clearly are hesitant to take on the president-elect early in his term.

And finally, Trump sees himself as a man of action and is likely to be aggressive immediately after he is sworn into office. He has never shown self-doubt, and there is no reason to believe that he will start now.

In spite of Trump’s assertions to the contrary, the president-elect’s victory in November was one of the weakest showings by a winner in the history of the country. But losing the popular vote didn’t matter to George W. Bush, who pushed his agenda forcefully in 2001, and it isn’t likely to matter to Trump.

In many respects, Trump starts his presidency stronger than did Bush.

Bush had only 221 GOPers in the House, while there are 241 now. And the Senate was evenly split when Bush was sworn in, while Trump enters office with his party holding a 52-48 advantage.

Clinton was also a tougher act to follow, according to job approval polls.

While Barack Obama’s approval sits in the low to mid-50s as he leaves office, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings generally were in the mid-60s during the Clinton-Bush transition period, according to Gallup.  

Moreover, when Bush was elected, most Americans thought the U.S. economy was strong. Given that, Bush obviously was vulnerable politically if Americans perceived the economy as slowing during his administration. 

Now, while the U.S. economy has clearly strengthened over the past year or two, Americans still don’t think it is doing all that well, which gives Trump a freer hand than Bush had when it comes to new economic policies.

All of these factors suggest Trump will enter the White House with a strong hand – or at least should do so. But there are so many red flags around that it is impossible to know whether the new president will take advantage of his opportunities.

First, Trump’s comments about issues and controversies (and even award shows) continue to be erratic and often contradictory. His comments about the U.S. intelligence community and Russian interference in the election are at odds with the evidence and with sentiment on Capitol Hill. He has often needed aides to “clarify” his positions (i.e., walk them back).

Obviously, presidential tweeting contains huge risks for the White House, since Trump’s tweets generally reflect his knee-jerk thoughts rather than a measured, informed response to an issue or challenge.

So far, Trump has appeared eager to pick a fight with China and has acted as if he can dictate to other nations (as well as American companies) how to behave. Taken together, all of these things raise questions about how he will perform as the nation’s leader.

Second, Trump can act quickly with executive orders, but Democrats still have 48 senators, which makes them factors on most decisions. Moreover, as Democrats found out when they addressed health care reform in Obama’s first term, having control of the House, a sitting president and a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate doesn’t guarantee quick passage of controversial legislation.

Finally, while Trump proved adept at rallying his base during the campaign, as president, he’ll have to deal with issues and controversies that are not his own making. More importantly, the more aggressive he is early on, the faster he will become responsible for the state of the nation and the nation’s economy.

Presidents invariably blame their predecessors for ongoing problems, and Trump will be no exception. But during his campaign, he promised problems would be easily solved, setting an unusually high bar for himself.

Donald Trump successfully mastered the GOP nomination process and touched the nerves of voters in just the right states to win the White House. But the arena has changed once again, and he faces greater challenges and risks, as well as a political system that is more complicated and cumbersome than anything he has faced before.

Supporters of Trump have plenty of reason for optimism. But the president-elect’s weaknesses – especially his unbridled self-confidence and his lack of self-control – combined with the nature of the U.S.  and international political systems, raise questions about his success.