As Donald Trump takes over as the 45th president of the United States, speculation is rife regarding what he might do with the power that history, via the American electorate, has put at his disposal.
As a student of American politics since the 1960s I don’t recall any US president to have started his tenure with more negative comments from the pundits than Trump. To put it mildly, the American great and the good, the literati and the glitterati don’t like Trump and openly hope that he would produce another failed presidency.
Paradoxically, that could be good news for Trump as it sharply reduces expectations. Even now, the fact that Trump manages to provide more or less coherent answers in an interview with the London Times is hailed an achievement in itself.
Low expectations for a Trump presidency comes after insanely high expectations inspired by Barack Obama at the start of his first term. During eight years in the White House, Obama was obliged to constantly lower those expectations, each time failing to meet the lower targets he set. Having started at the peak of expectations, symbolized by the Nobel Peace prize offered to him as an appetizer, Obama had nowhere to go but down until he hit the bottom. Even his most ardent supporters now agree that, as president, he was a failure, but insist that, though a bad president, he was a good man just as the Wizard of Oz had been.
In contrast, Trump, starting from the bottom, as far as expectations are concerned, has nowhere to go but up. Trump’s chief asset, as far as his support base is concerned, is that he is not Obama.
But is not being Obama enough to secure Trump a successful presidency? I think the answer is: no, although Trump could learn a great deal from Obama’s mistakes.
Obama built his presidency on being anti-Bush. His obsessive anti-Bushism, or non-Bushism to put it mildly, was at the root of his disastrous mistakes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Georgia and Ukraine among other places and in dealing with Russia, the NATO allies, the Arab allies and even Israel. Obama followed a simple formula: those who hated the US should be wooed and flattered while US allies should be vilified, insulted and even stabbed in the back.
Though Trump should undo some of Obama’s misdeeds as fast as procedure allows, he should not fall in the trap of thinking that whatever Obama did must be undone. If he did that he would emerge as a caricature of the outgoing president.
Another lesson that Trump could learn from Obama’s failure is to keep his ego well under control. Obama had an inflated high opinion of himself, symbolized by the “Yes, We Can” slogan which he had borrowed from his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another politician with a giant ego. (Ahmadinejad’s slogan in his 2005 presidential campaign was “Ma Mitavanim” (We Can) three years before Obama appeared on the US national scene.) Americans might be taken in by a Boasting Billy for a time but always end up booing him towards the exit.
Another lesson for Trump is not to replicate Obama’s disdain for the rules and working traditions of the American democratic system. The new president would be well advised not to marginalize his own Cabinet members, and, above all, not try and circumvent the Congress.
Obama surrounded himself by yes-men, in fact mostly yes-women, and mediocre apparatchiki such as Joe Biden and John Kerry who had no experience of life outside Washington politics. Trump, however, has recruited people who have impressive CVs of their own and are unlikely to regard massaging the chief’s ego as their sole mission in life.
More importantly, perhaps, Trump should learn from Obama’s failure to control his logorrhoea. As Hillary Clinton once observed, Obama simply couldn’t resist hearing the sound of his own voice, making a speech reading from a teleprompter. So far, Trump has shown a similar weakness by failing to moderate his twittering tendencies.
In politics, however, keeping one’s mouth shut is at times the sanest policy. Not all problems have readily available solutions and, if they did, not applying the solution is within the gift of the United Sates in every instance.
Remember Obama saying “Assad must Go!” and that the massacre of Syrians with chemical weapons was a “red line” even when he knew that he didn’t mean any of that? And what about all those “options on the table” that Obama made a song and dance about if Iran were to enrich uranium, while telling the mullahs in secret talks that they could enrich uranium to their hearts’ content, and that for non-existent nuclear power stations.
The lesson for Trump is: If you don’t mean it, don’t say it! Yet another lesson that Trump can learn from Obama is not to mislead the American people, even if only by omission. Obama spent much time and energy telling Americans that when facing adversaries and foes the US had no choice but to either launch a full-scale invasion or to surrender in an appeasement-plus posture. Since a majority of Americans were no longer prepared for another full-scale war anywhere, they swallowed Obama’s appeasement-plus policy which has made America’s enemies and adversaries bolder and more brazen.
Casting himself as a Messiah-like figure Obama’s claimed mission was to “change America”, a silly slogan to justify his hasty and ultimately counter-productive posturing. Trump should not repeat that mistake. Aspects of American political and economic life need to be reformed, they always did and always will; but America isn’t a blank page on which a new president can doodle as he pleases.
Obama, as indicated in the two books he published before winning the presidency saw himself as a man in a hurry if only because he believed that he could “make history”. Trump should avoid that mistake by steering clear of fast-food ideological gimmicks and learn to make haste slowly.
Obama had nothing worthwhile to say but said his nothing eloquently. Trump, already safe from the sin of eloquence, should go for substance rather than form.
Trump has a phrase that I much appreciate: “What is going on?” Yes, on every issue first let’s see what is going on, and then decide what is best to do, the opposite of the Obama method.