Five days into the presidency of Donald Trump, with many Americans anxious about the unpredictability of the country’s new leader, the USC Price School of Public Policy and Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon hosted a discussion on “Navigating Politics in the Era of Trump,” featuring NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson.
The event, held at USC’s Town and Gown ballroom on Jan. 25, was part of the George Washington Leadership Lecture series, a partnership between the two institutions.
“While we can disagree or agree on policies, and I emphasize that the Price school is nonpartisan, this election is unlike any in recent memory,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott in his opening remarks.
“With such a recent transfer of power, many policy questions have yet to be answered, but we recognize the profound effect that the expected policy changes and decisions will have, as well as their implications locally and globally,” Knott said. “This evening, we have the opportunity to examine the new president and administration through an analytical lens, as we delve into important policy topics.”
From the campaign to the Oval Office
USC Price Professor David Sloane guided the conversation with Liasson focusing on what can be expected from a president who often does the unexpected.
“Tonight, we consider our moment,” Sloane said, “a new, potentially transformative president looking to put his stamp on a series of different domestic and foreign policy challenges, practicing perhaps a new style of politics.”
Liasson expressed that one thing already is clear — that Trump is the same person he was during the campaign.
“The thing that already is surprising is that there’s no pivot,” Liasson said. “There’s no secret presidential Donald Trump that is going to come out.”
The isolationist “America first” vision Trump preached in his inaugural address was alarming to many. Liasson pointed out that the idea of America as the leader of the free world was that we were willing to shoulder more than our fair share because it was in our national security and economic interests.
He’s going to be making some deals and let’s see how good they are.
“He’s the great dealmaker,” Liasson said. “That’s his persona and brand. He’s going to be making some deals and let’s see how good they are. Because I don’t think he knows yet how much leverage other countries have.”
What’s on the agenda?
According to Liasson, presidents — regardless of their popularity — will get their agenda through in year one when their party controls each side of Congress. The question remains: What is Trump’s agenda?
He’s adopted the Republican Congressional agenda of cutting taxes and regulations, and doing something about Obamacare, Liasson noted. But the one agenda item he spoke about in his inaugural address was adding $1 trillion in infrastructure.
Liasson contends that’s a plan Republicans in Congress would have rejected as excessive government spending if proposed by President Barack Obama. That’s why she doesn’t see Trump being a traditional pro-corporations Republican president, but rather working to keep the faith of the working-class vote that served as his base.
“I guess the surprise is he won’t be as much a captive of conventional Republicans as they think he might be,” Liasson said. “I don’t know what form that might take, but that’s what I would guess. I think he’s very serious about doing something different, and he ran as much against the leadership of his own party as he did anything else.”
A recent Gallup poll tagged Trump as the first elected president with an initial approval rating below 50 percent. Liasson commented that Trump is being put in a position to succeed and turn those numbers around, inheriting the strongest economy of any incoming president in 20 years, the first in that period to have unemployment dropping and gross domestic product going up.
“Although he busted so many norms, overturned so many conventions, in the end I think he will be judged by an extremely traditional, old-fashioned metric,” Liasson said. “Which is, at the end of four years, are there more jobs, do people feel more safe, do they feel better off than they were four years ago?”
Earlier in the evening, Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the Fred W. Smith Library, addressed the audience and presented a copy of a book from the library’s collection in which Washington marked up the constitution. Where it indicates that the president shall take care that the laws enacted by Congress be faithfully executed, Washington wrote “required.”
Bradburn pointed to the aftermath of the election as part of the precedent set by Washington. Although there has been a lot of controversy for a president who didn’t win the popular vote, with allegations of foreign interference, there wasn’t a military coup as might happen in other republics.
“[Washington] believed American democracy was more than one person in charge, and that peaceful transition of power — which we did have again this year — is another legacy of Washington’s moment and his understanding,” Bradburn said.