WASHINGTON, D.C. — “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
President Donald Trump’s blunt declaration during his stark inaugural address now becomes a yardstick to judge his administration’s ability to fundamentally reshape America’s politics and global posture.
The first weekday of the new White House opens a new chapter in the story of Trump the politician. It is the moment the promises he made and the huge expectations he has built begin to stack up against the reality of governing.
To succeed, Trump must quickly stamp his authority on his Cabinet, the government and his own party and sideline building resistance from Democrats — all while adapting the multiple personal challenges posed by learning the hardest job in the world.
His schedule is full. Monday, Trump has a private meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a reception for congressional leaders, sessions with business leaders and union leaders, and is set to sign more executive orders. His agenda is almost entirely open to cameras — ensuring a day’s worth of images his team hopes will show a commander-in-chief at work.
The new President acknowledged the “busy week” in a tweet Monday morning: “Busy week planned with a heavy focus on jobs and national security. Top executives coming in at 9:00 A.M. to talk manufacturing in America.”
Trump, who embarks on his term with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated modern President, must now confront the reality that his campaign is over and failing to live up to the elevated hopes of his devoted supporters will start exacting a political price.
He spent the weekend complaining about media coverage during a visit to the CIA’s memorial wall, a top aide suggested the White House simply presented “alternative facts” about the crowd size at his inauguration, and Saturday saw a series of nationwide protests against him.
But the real-estate magnate and reality star now lives in the White House because he successfully sold despairing Rust Belt voters left behind in the modern economy on a vision of a nation trapped in social, economic and international decline.
His rationale was that only he, with his non-political, deal-making skills and disdain for political correctness could restore a sense of hope, possibility and US global dominance.
“When I was young, we were always winning things in this country. We’d win with trade. We’d win with wars,” Trump told CIA employees on Saturday, reprising his theme during a visit to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia.
As President, the buck now stops with him as he targets those “wins” that he promised would soon start flowing if Americans took a chance on a political novice and self-described master of the deal.
He must now start acting rather than just talking about what he termed Friday in his inaugural address as the “American carnage” of lost lives, crime-ridden communities and deprived inner cities.
The challenges are immense. After all, Trump promised to revive American manufacturing — a goal that effectively requires him to reverse the tide of globalization. His vow to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth meanwhile seems like an impossible goal, unless he can somehow come up with policies that no other Western leader has tried over the past two decades.
In an early sign of intent that will herald a sharp change in US trade policies, two sources familiar with the matter said Trump will Monday sign an executive order formally pulling the United States out of the yet-to-be-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact slashing tariffs in a region that accounts for 40% of global trade.
The move is an early gesture to voters who embraced Trump’s hostility to global trade deals and belief that the pacts have contributed to the flight of blue collar jobs to low wage economies in the developing world. It also represents a sharp turn away from the foreign policies of the Obama administration since the TPP was the centerpiece of the “pivot to Asia” policy.
Facing a skeptical world
Trump is also about to make his first steps on the world stage.
On Friday, he will welcome his first foreign visitor — British Prime Minister Theresa May, who like her peers on the world stage, is anxious to size up the new President and see what exactly Trump’s “America First” doctrine means for the world.
On Sunday, Trump said he would soon meet the leaders of Canada and Mexico to start renegotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement. The talks will amount to a litmus test of the rationale of his campaign — that only he can drive better deals for America.
It’s unlikely that either Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will offer much quarter since their own electorates will also expect better terms from NAFTA.
The White House clearly understands the importance of injecting early momentum into the administration, and is planning a sequence of executive actions that will begin to roll back the legacy of former President Barack Obama.
“I think this week, we’re going to talk about trade. I think we’re going to talk about that a little bit more tomorrow,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think we’re going to talk about immigration this week and we’re going to have a time of national security, a conversation about that, obviously, with (Defense Secretary) General Mattis,” he said.
Trump is also scheduled to visit a Republican retreat this week to glad hand GOP rank-and-file members along with Vice President Mike Pence.
It’s going to be a full week. And this president is going to work hard,” Priebus said.
The White House also says the administration is starting to discuss how to move the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to honor a campaign promise, following Trump’s call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday.
Given fears of a backlash in the Palestinian territories and likely fury among US anti-terror allies in the Arab world, the embassy initiative will test Trump’s ability to deliver, and to live with the consequences of his actions.
Facing a skeptical Congress
For even half of Trump’s grand design to be realized, the President will have to stamp his authority in Washington, and flush out the inertia in a political system where little of consequence has happened in six years of partisan gridlock.
While Republicans who control the House and Senate are eager to finally send conservative bills on everything from tax cuts to education and health care cascading down Pennsylvania Avenue to a GOP White House, it’s almost inevitable that internecine party struggles lie ahead.
For instance, Trump’s desire to confront pharmaceutical firms on drug prices, vision of using government to rebuild the inner cities and ambitious plans for infrastructure spending all run counter to conservative GOP orthodoxy.
And after castigating Washington elites for most of his inaugural address, Trump will rely on them to pass his ambitious agenda. Not everyone is willing to be rushed — including his fellow Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for instance Sunday said that he was committed to an “orderly process” of repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it — a more stately timetable than that of the President. The Obamacare debate will lay down a marker as to whether Trump has the ability to charm, cajole or bully lawmakers to back his agenda.
Trump must also reconcile the flagrant differences of opinion within his own national security team on questions like NATO and Russia relations because any prolonged ideological duels in the cabinet could hamper his hopes of quickly reorienting US foreign policy.
And while Trump enters office as one of the most powerful Presidents of recent times — given GOP majorities on Capitol Hill, he can’t completely ignore the opposition.
Giant crowds that poured onto the streets of multiple cities over the weekend heartened progressives traumatized by their election loss. They might also embolden Democrats to use what limited power they have to further slow the President’s cabinet picks, agenda and soon-to-be named Supreme Court nominee.
“If you would have told me that, at this point in time, Democrats would be united and on offense, and Republicans would be divided on defense, when it comes to ACA, or the Cabinet, for that matter, I would have said, you know, you’re wrong,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
Facing a skeptical media
Given the intense political pressure facing the White House and the complexity off enacting Trump’s agenda, it’s perhaps surprising the President chose to ignite a new war with the media, over reporting of the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
He complained about media coverage while speaking at the CIA Saturday, and then Sean Spicer’s first official White House briefing room appearance was a broadside against the press, which ended with the press secretary taking no question.
There’s nothing for Trump to lose politically with his supporters by waging war with the media — and his strategy of exasperating the clubby White House press corps gels with his image as a disruptor who disrespects convention.
But Spicer’s frenetic appearance caused some observers to wonder how the new administration will respond to a genuinely high-pressure situation like a national security crisis or natural disaster that is sure to erupt.
And sooner or later, dwelling on trivialities and dealing in what Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday could damage the credibility of the administration.
Trump’s decision meanwhile to do little to reach out to voters who opposed him and are fearful about the implications of his administration means his seam of personal political support will remain fairly narrow.
Therefore, it becomes even more imperative to reward the voters who sent him to the White House — making a fast, productive start to his administration crucial to its hopes of future success.
So Trump needs wins, and soon.