By Invitation

Trump's roller-coaster of a first year in office

Expect more upheavals this year as the White House continues to lurch from one crisis to the next

It is already January 2018, yet the dust from America's 2016 presidential election still has not really settled.

Going by the jeremiads in social media posts and mainstream media commentary, it is evident that many Americans have yet to come to terms with the fact that the controversial billionaire real estate developer and reality television celebrity Donald Trump was elected to the presidency.

Cast our eyes back to June 16, 2015 when Mr Trump announced his candidature: Who thought then that he had a chance of winning, or was even a serious candidate for that matter? Indeed according to Fire And Fury, author Michael Wolff's insider account of the Trump White House, even Mr Trump himself did not think so. Yet win he did, and here we are, one year to the day the man, who we are constantly reminded is a political neophyte, was inaugurated into the pinnacle of American power.

Cue then, the predictable avalanche of commentary on Mr Trump's first year.

How do we evaluate his performance, especially given that objectivity is a luxury when it comes to assessing Mr Trump? Well, we could start by simply comparing his first year to that of Mr Barack Obama's, but this is probably a fool's errand given that Mr Trump has unapologetically cast himself as the quintessential anti-Obama, zealous to undo everything that his predecessor did.

What about comparing him with previous Republican presidents? Perhaps, except for the fact that on many issues - fiscal conservatism and support for free trade, to name but two - Mr Trump has proven to be somewhat "un"-Republican.

Ultimately, given the widespread view that he exhibits narcissistic behaviour, it is perhaps best to assess Mr Trump against himself: what he claims to stand for, how he conducts affairs of state, and where he has or has not fulfilled his campaign promises.

DOMESTIC CRISIS

Mr Trump surely has his advocates, and they would doubtless roll out several statistics in defence of his performance.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The Dow Jones has been hitting new highs, breaching the 25,000 mark earlier this month. According to the Bureau of Statistics, the US economy added 1.8 million new jobs from September 2016 to September last year. Although he failed to attain the 4 per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth he set as a target, US annualised GDP is still on track for a decent 3 to 3.2 per cent.

But, to paraphrase Newton's third law, for every statistic there is always an equal and opposite statistic. Despite the upbeat economic forecasts, Mr Trump remains the least popular American president in recent memory.

At his inauguration a year ago, Mr Trump had an approval rating of 45 per cent, the lowest of any newly minted American president in the post-war era. That figure has since been falling steadily. (According to Newsweek, the next lowest was Mr Ronald Reagan, who polled 48 per cent when he was inaugurated in January 1982).

This is hardly surprising considering Mr Trump actually lost the popular vote at the election. Indeed, even non-voters outnumbered Trump voters.

Another set of statistics raises alarm: the bewildering rate of turnover in the executive branch. More than a dozen senior office holders resigned, were fired or were redeployed within Mr Trump's first year.

For some who stayed the course, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, persistent rumours of impending removal hung like the sword of Damocles over them at various points over the year.

Among Mr Trump's remaining team, which comprises a motley crew of corporate personalities, social conservatives and policy radicals, few possess serious experience in government. All this hardly inspires confidence that Mr Trump is steering a steady ship.

Predictably, this set of numbers impaired Mr Trump's ability to do his job and raised questions about his authority and credibility, so much so that he was probably the first occupant of the Oval Office who did not get to enjoy anything resembling the classic "honeymoon" period. Instead, he had to hit the ground running in the most inauspicious way when aspersions were cast at his ability to draw a crowd for his inauguration.

But it was the revelation of possible Russian involvement in the presidential election that has been the most damaging, especially since it continues to cast a long shadow over his presidency.

Of course, the Mueller investigation is still to run its course, and thus far there has been no smoking gun. Yet the fact that it is prompting comparisons with the Watergate and Whitewater scandals of the Nixon and Clinton years is hardly reassuring. Although talk of impeachment and conviction is still premature, so long as the investigation continues it will be a massive source of frustration for Mr Trump, and a major distraction for his presidency.

The Russian investigation is hardly the only thorn in Mr Trump's side. Thus far, he has antagonised liberals with his position on immigration, worsened relations with the Washington elite by claiming to want to "drain the (Washington) swamp", angered the media with accusations of fake news every time they report on him, and alienated GOP powerbrokers with the more radical elements of his agenda.

In response, as his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act demonstrated, all sorts of obstacles have been put in his way. Even when he did eventually push through the passage of his tax Bill, in the process paving the way for the most comprehensive overhaul of the incredibly complicated US taxation system in decades, the victory may well prove pyrrhic. Apart from swelling the deficit, massive corporate tax cuts - a mainstay of the Bill - will benefit the wealthy considerably, and by that logic would undermine Mr Trump's own campaign promises to the backbone of his base, the white non-college educated working class.

FOREIGN POLICY

Much has been made about how Mr Trump is upending international affairs while stepping back from America's traditional post-war role as architect and leader of global institutions that underwrite the rules-based international order.

After all, he did campaign on an agenda which fulminated against multilateral institutions, questioned the utility of longstanding alliances, and threatened to renege on international commitments, all in the name of "America First".

While much has been made about the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate deal, these moves, while significant and regrettable, are not irreparable.

Nor is Mr Trump the first American president to withdraw the US from international agreements: Mr George W. Bush took the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and rejected calls for the US to join the International Criminal Court.

Somewhat reminiscent of the Bush years as well, Mr Trump's foreign policy thus far appears more akin to selective but muscular proactivism than a retreat into its shell - launching 59 Tomahawks at Syria (while having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping) in response to President Bashar al-Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons on his own population would hardly classify as the actions of an isolationist president.

Nevertheless, because of the controversies swirling around him, the manner in which the US President has pursued policies has come under heavy scrutiny.

Take his provocative announcement acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a case in point. From one angle, Mr Trump was merely reiterating the Jerusalem Embassy Act that recognises an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel, which incidentally was passed with huge majorities in both houses of Congress in October 1995. Yet from another perspective, the move drew unnecessary attention to an issue that, though emotive, had hitherto been quiet, and was a strategic misstep that created inconvenience for Israel and Saudi Arabia which hitherto were gradually warming up to an intriguing alignment of strategic interests.

TURNING TO ASIA

As the domestic political storm continues to gather in Washington and the world is seized by Mr Trump's every word and deed, how would all this affect us here in Asia?

The tendency to extrapolate crisis from the domestic disarray that bedevils America obscures the reality that some serious efforts have been made to continue its engagement in global affairs, albeit on different terms.

And it is in Asia where these efforts have arguably been most visible and significant.

As I expressed in previous columns, there has been more than an element of continuity in Mr Trump's approach to Asia. For instance, unlike his approach to Europe, Mr Trump walked back very quickly from threats to abandon alliances with Japan and South Korea. If anything, the US has intensified its engagement in North-east Asia, though this has doubtless been precipitated by the growing threat that North Korea is posing not only to the region, but also to the US itself.

American interest and leadership in North-east Asian security matters can be expected to intensify further in the coming year.

Mr Trump's longest trip abroad so far was to Asia, where he spent more time in South-east Asia than North-east Asia, and regional leaders no doubt heaved a sigh of relief when he turned up at all the meetings of the major regional institutions (he attended the East Asia Summit lunch, though he missed the summit proper).

The Trump administration may be bereft of strategy on the South China Sea, but this has been the case with previous administrations as well. But, as with all things regarding Mr Trump, there are ample reasons to harbour misgivings. His tit-for-tat personal attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for instance, contribute little to ameliorating tensions, although his language took a conciliatory turn in the new year.

Mr Trump's impulse to draw China into a trade war is also generating disconcerting cadences for the region, and any move to reconsider the free trade agreement with South Korea would be untimely given the circumstances.

Having withdrawn from the TPP and without a "Plan B", it is unclear how the Trump administration intends to achieve what the recently published National Security Strategy describes as its interests to "play a catalytic role in promoting private-sector-led economic growth", helping aspiring partners become future trading and security partners.

All said, Mr Trump's first year was a roller-coaster ride which witnessed the President careen from one controversy to another, one crisis to another; a situation not helped by the President's personality, style, temperament, and impulses, all of which have been called into question in so many quarters.

There is little indication that things will stabilise on the domestic front in the coming year, which means that even if cooler heads in the Washington establishment are prepared for the US to play a constructive role globally, the Trump administration is likely to continue to be distracted, having to expend much energy and resources firefighting rather than pursuing America's global interests in a strategic fashion.

Or worse, an erratic, embattled president might well choose to divert attention at home by "busy(ing) giddy minds with foreign quarrels", as Shakespeare puts in Henry IV, Part 2.

Either way, the year ahead is likely to be as rough a ride as the one that just passed.

• The writer is dean and professor of comparative and international politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'Trump's roller coaster of a first year in office'. Print Edition | Subscribe