Presidents and Presidency (US)

News Analysis: Promise the Moon? Easy for Trump. But Now Comes the Reckoning.

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Mr. Trump’s advisers characterize that as the more pragmatic side of a businessman who takes maximalist positions in part to set the stage for negotiations but does not necessarily intend to go as far as he might give the impression. His critics said that the partial steps were still destructive, and that the president was effectively leaving initiatives like health care and the Iran deal wounded on the battlefield without allowing ambulances onto the scene.

A question for the president is whether partial actions will satisfy supporters demanding a full repudiation of the Obama era. Mr. Trump promised to deal with such issues in some cases within his first days in office but has found that Washington resists quick action. Frustrated by Congress, he is increasingly turning to executive power and can point to the moves he has made as signs of his commitment to fulfilling his promises.

“The gap between President Trump’s ambitious promises and actual policies is large and growing,” said William C. Inboden, a White House aide under President George W. Bush and now executive director of the William P. Clements Jr. Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University of Texas. “This is weakening the institution of the presidency itself, which becomes diminished when presidents over promise and under deliver, or when responsibilities normally handled by the president become habitually shirked to Congress or other nations.”

A cautionary tale is Mr. Obama himself, who made lofty and ambitious heal-the-planet, close-Guantánamo promises only to fall short in some instances, to the disappointment of his liberal supporters. The difference is that Mr. Trump often gives the impression with his public comments that he has gone further than he actually has.


By cutting subsidies to insurance companies, “it’s clear the president is trying to sabotage the health care market and send costs soaring,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Credit Pete Marovich for The New York Times

“It’s classic Trump: bluff and bombast substituting for actual deeds,” said Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, a foreign policy magazine. “He’s the political equivalent of the Washington Nationals — a choke artist at critical moments.”

Mr. Trump pronounced himself happy with the approach he is taking on health care, which has been the most consuming domestic issue of his presidency so far. “We’re going a little different route,” he told an audience of religious conservatives on Friday. “But you know what? In the end, it’s going to be just as effective, and maybe it’ll even be better.”

Later in the day, he acknowledged that his new strategy on Iran would not actually scrap the nuclear deal but would allow Congress to come up with an alternative. Asked why he did not simply terminate the agreement, he said: “I may very well do that. But I like a two-step process much better.”

Democrats said Mr. Trump’s actions were meant to sabotage the health care program and undermine the Iran deal even without full repeal. By cutting subsidies to insurance companies, “it’s clear the president is trying to sabotage the health care market and send costs soaring,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland denounced what he called “the president’s reckless, political decision and his subsequent threat to Congress” on the Iran agreement.

Mr. Trump has taken partial steps on other campaign promises as well. He signed an order scrapping his predecessor’s program granting legal status to as many as 800,000 younger immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, but delayed the final effect for six months to give Congress a chance to restore it on a more solid legal foundation. Even then, he suggested that he would find another way to preserve the program if Congress did not meet his deadline.

He has boasted that he was reversing Mr. Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba. But while he has pulled out many diplomats and restored some restrictions on contacts with the island, he has not cut off relations again, closed the embassy or shut down travel and other interactions. He has talked about throwing out Nafta, but has actually left it intact and has taken the route of negotiating to see if it can be retained with improved provisions.

“I am not surprised because Donald Trump is not an ideologue, he’s a realist and a pragmatist,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of the president’s. “During the campaign, he staked out some very strong positions maybe as a negotiating start point, or in other cases they were based on the facts he had at the time.”

“Trump is actually very open to feedback and criticism on his ideas,” Mr. Ruddy said. “Based on that he can easily adjust and change course.”

Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, said the president seemed to be trying to translate business negotiations to the political world. “Trump’s clearly got a theory of deal-making — demand the world, take the most you can, and then brag about it,” he said. “It’s actually a pretty good tack that’s often underestimated. But the bottom line, so far in his presidency, is that he’s been unable to deliver on overstated goals.”

In the end, he may wind up taking the more sweeping actions — he may yet pull the United States out of Nafta or the Iran deal. He may yet let the program for younger immigrants expire early next year. He has repeatedly talked about “letting Obamacare fail,” which his latest steps may accelerate.

“There is now a new and scary spring in his step,” Mr. Kupchan said. “He could be entering a new phase involving fuller takedowns of agreements and institutions. The Iran deal and Nafta are bellwether cases. What’s really interesting is that he fired his chief revolutionary, Steve Bannon, but seems on the verge of taking on that role himself.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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