Trump's 100 Days

Checked, But Not Balanced

President Trump Signs Memorandum On Aluminum Imports In Oval Office
Source: Bloomberg / Olivier Douliery

Nobody likes them but everybody reads them. That is the crux of these “100 days in office” report cards. Donald Trump clearly feels the same way. To keep public expectation as low as possible, he tweeted that the milestone was a “ridiculous standard.” But at the same time, the political narcissist did all he could to paint his first 100 days in the White House in the best possible light. That his long-awaited tax reform – a solitary A4 page of bullet points in the end – was pulled out of the hat just before the anniversary was certainly no coincidence. In many ways, it symbolized the starting phase of the Trump era: big promises, light on detail and risky. After 100 days, Donald Trump is still unpredictable.

This is particularly true of his trade policy. Mr. Trump ran for president with the threat of making life difficult for countries with large trade surpluses, like China and Germany. Aside from punitive tariffs on steel imports, however, the sanctions haven’t materialized. China has not been branded a currency manipulator, he developed an “unbelievable chemistry” with German Chancellor Merkel, and even the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, once lambasted by Mr. Trump as being “the worst deal maybe ever” is now to be improved rather than cancelled. The only thing that fell by the wayside was the Trans Pacific Partnership with eleven, primarily Asian, countries.

But it would be premature to file away Mr. Trump’s economic nationalism as empty threats. If there is one constant in Donald Trump’s life, it is his protectionist knee-jerk reaction to, in his view, “unfair trade.” The slogan “America First” was just as much for his supporters as it was for him. So Ms. Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping need to stay on their guard. Danger is lurking for the German economy: Mr. Trump’s tax plans won’t only exacerbate global tax competition; they also risk sending shockwaves through the entire financial system. That is because the US president is prepared to accept high budget deficits that could send tremors through the interest rate and currency markets.

At the moment, Mr. Trump seems to have been kept in check by some of the more experienced members of his cabinet.

Mr. Trump has also trodden a zig-zag path in his foreign and security policies – with plenty of backward flips along the way. The discontinuation of the One China policy went out the window after just one day. NATO is no longer obsolete. The Iran nuclear deal used to be a disaster for Mr. Trump, but now he plans to stay with it. Russia’s Vladimir Putin was once a better leader than Barack Obama. Now he’s the bad guy, helping to cover up a chemical weapons attack by his Syrian puppet, Bashar al-Assad.

At first, the US didn’t want to play the role of the world’s policeman. But then after the chemical weapons attack in Syria, it fired 59 cruise missiles as a warning to the human butcher, al-Assad. Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, announced the US would once again dedicate itself to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents, anywhere in the world.”

At the moment, Mr. Trump seems to have been kept in check by some of the more experienced members of his cabinet, like his national security advisor Herbert McMaster and his Secretary of Defense James Mattis. For the time being, they have managed to tame the impulsive president and prevent a radical change in US foreign and security policies. Admittedly, the picture could change quickly in case of a nuclear showdown with North Korea or another chemical weapons attack in Syria. So it is still too early for an all-clear in foreign policy, as well.

When it comes to domestic policy, Mr. Trump’s record so far is a farce. His replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, got pathetically shot down in March when it came up against resistance from within his own ranks. Congress also refused to support funding for the controversial construction of his wall on the Mexican border. His only success has been the naming of the conservative judge, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court.

With an approval rating of only 44 percent, Mr. Trump is, after 100 days, the most unpopular US president in almost 50 years. The original assertions remain: Mr. Trump cannot be taken literally, even as president, but he should be taken seriously. On the campaign trail, he was able to talk about a trade war and many just shrugged their shoulders. But today, when the leader of the free world threatens North Korea militarily and trade partners like Germany and China with sanctions, the rest of the world flinches.

Certainly, based on the things he said and the promises he made during his election campaign, the world could have expected far worse after 100 days of Donald Trump. The United States is still a democracy with well-functioning checks and balances. World War III hasn’t broken out. That is the positive. But we still have at least 1,360 days ahead of us with Mr. Trump.

 

The author can be reached at: riecke@handelsblatt.com

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