(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump took the oath of office Friday, a celebration of American unity in a country that is anything but unified.
Other presidents have been sworn in on the Capitol steps facing war, economic calamity or domestic social strife. Trump, the only president elected with no prior experience in public or military service, confronts a more fundamental challenge to his leadership.
He’s the first president since the dawn of national polling in the late 1930s to enter office with the approval of fewer than half of Americans — in his case only 40 percent, according to Gallup. Trump and his party in Congress already are at odds, especially on the issue of the Russian government’s role in electing him. And financial markets, which soared immediately following his election, have recently begun to cool.
Yet the new president is an instinctive performer who repeatedly overcame doubters in the unlikeliest of presidential campaigns. He brings to the White House the powerful populist fury of white working-class Americans that won him the election. He is a master of modern social media and old-fashioned political distraction.
“Everything until now has played to Donald Trump’s strengths,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas. “He can talk a good game, in his own way, and spin things the way he wants. When you’re actually president, the spin matters a lot less.”
Trump so far has delivered Americans a presidential transition that was simultaneously chaotic, theatrical and consequential. Abandoning the customary quiet of an incoming president preparing to take power, Trump wielded his Twitter account as both a weapon against his opponents and an unprecedented policy-making tool.
He has been able to claim success. Automakers have said they’ll move at least symbolic amounts of production from Mexico to the U.S. after Trump’s attacks on Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. Defense contractors have begun negotiating costs for the country’s most expensive weapons after public scrutiny by the president-elect. The Affordable Care Act is on its way toward at least a partial repeal, even if Trump and Republicans have yet to agree on a replacement.
As president, Trump faces a short window to deliver on the big promises that brought him to office — construction of a border wall paid for by Mexico, an improved health care system, an economic boom. If he fails, he’ll become the latest — albeit most spectacular — in a long line of “outsider” politicians to find themselves brought to heel by Washington.
His political legitimacy is already being tested by U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia worked to sway the election for him. That stands in stark contrast to the false claims about Barack Obama’s birth that followed him into office.
Trump’s transition ad-libs have rattled markets. His threat to have Medicare negotiate prices with drug-makers earlier this month dragged down major stock indices, and automakers and defense contractors have seen similar losses. Trump’s remarks last Friday that the dollar has gotten “too strong” and was “killing us,” combined with comments indicating fundamental disagreement with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, over a border tax policy, also weighed on markets.
Trump has done little to build the goodwill every other president accumulated following their election. His standing in Gallup’s pre-inaugural survey is 38 points lower than President Barack Obama’s in January 2009.
Obama and President Bill Clinton improved their favorability numbers by, respectively, 16 points and 15 points following their election. Trump added only six points above Gallup’s final pre-election survey. Even George W. Bush managed a seven-point bounce despite spending nearly half his transition period locked in a bitter partisan court battle over a recount of the Florida vote.
The fragility of Trump’s public support weakens his leverage with a Congress that, while nominally controlled by a party he leads, opposes some of his key objectives and is beset by internal fissures. Many congressional Republicans already are disinclined to give Trump the massive infrastructure bill he has championed, much less a replacement health care bill that satisfies his stated desire to provide “insurance for everyone.”
And Democrats have cast some of Trump’s cabinet selections as divisive, clearing only two nominees for Senate confirmation so far. “It’s going to be values that guide us, not to oppose Trump just for its own sake but not to go along with him when he opposes our values,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on MSNBC Friday morning. “On issues like trade or prescription drugs, if he’s true to what he says, he may be closer to us than the Republicans. His cabinet choices indicate none of that.”
The strategy Trump and his Republican allies have settled on for the Affordable Care Act — repeal and replace later — underscores the daunting task of coming up with a politically palatable bill that would preserve popular aspects of the Obama administration’s overhaul while balancing conservative interests. A Congressional Budget Office study this week warned that 32 million Americans would lose their health insurance over a decade if Obamacare ends without an alternative program in place.
And John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, on Friday morning doused cold water on Trump’s threats of a 35 percent tariff on imported foreign goods.
“It’s unlikely you would find much support among at least Republican members of Congress” for such a proposal, Thune said in an interview with MSNBC.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said the incoming president would look to rally support with an inaugural address that cast himself as a “shock to the system” that would benefit the millions of Americans in poverty or without health care.
“It’s not an agenda speech,” she said in an interview with Fox News. “It’s not a State of the Union speech. It’s very bold-oriented.”
Other nations are watching Trump closely. While leaders in the Baltic States discounted his campaign criticism of NATO and the European Union, the continent’s leaders were rattled when he echoed those remarks in interviews published Jan. 15 by the Times of London and Germany’s Bild newspaper.
China has sent increasingly bellicose signals after provocations by Trump’s incoming administration. The president-elect took a call from Taiwan’s president after his election, threatening to revisit the U.S.’s One China policy accepting the mainland government’s dominion over the island. Trump’s secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, vowed in his confirmation hearing last week to block China from further developing islands in the contested South China Sea.
If Trump continues his “gambit,” China will be forced to “take off the gloves,” the state-owned China Daily said in an editorial Jan. 16.
After he was sworn in, Trump paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue and watched from behind bullet-proof glass as the U.S. Army Old Guard fife-and-drum corps and small-town high school bands filed by the White House in his honor. He then walked into the building as the nation’s 45th president.
Once he looks at the from his predecessor, waiting for him in the drawer of his desk in the Oval Office, it’s now time to get to work. Over the next four years, he won’t be judged by profits or losses, by television ratings or Twitter followers, but against the weight of a standard he himself set over the course of a long presidential campaign: Greatness, not for Donald Trump, but for America.
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