Two Months In, Trump Finds Big Promises Are Hard to Keep

  • President’s campaign pledges clash with Washington reality
  • China currency reversal breaks pledge in contract with voters

Pres. Trump Unlikely to Brand China Currency Manipulator

President Donald Trump’s declaration that he won’t label China a currency manipulator stands as the clearest example of the difficulty he’s having delivering on big campaign promises.

Trump backed away from a signature pledge of his White House bid on Wednesday, days before release of a closely-watched Treasury Department report on the currency practices of major U.S. trading partners.

“They’re not currency manipulators,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.

The currency decision is one among many instances of Trump reversing course since taking office a little less than three months ago. Within the space of a few hours on Wednesday, Trump changed previously critical stances on the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the value of NATO, interest rates, and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. 

Likewise, his promises to renegotiate NAFTA, slap tariffs on Chinese goods, and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in his first days have been stymied, delayed or abandoned. And the missile strike on a Syrian airfield last week was the sort of foreign military intervention that candidate Trump had warned against.

Familiar Challenge

To be sure, the difficulty Trump faces sticking to his campaign promises is familiar to every president. Barack Obama was unable to realize his vow to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, George W. Bush saw budget deficits balloon and the economy stall during his presidency, and overhauling the nation’s health-care system escaped Bill Clinton’s grasp.

But those presidents, girded by previous political experience, acknowledged some of the political headwinds they’d face as they sought to implement ambitious agendas. Not so for Trump, who employed his characteristic bluster to promise dramatic change immediately upon assuming office.

“It’s difficult to navigate,” said Wendy Cutler, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. trade negotiator. “What was said on the campaign trail is just different from coming to the White House.”

While Trump’s promises during the campaign were often emphatic and sometimes extravagant, he did at times switch positions or contradicted past statements. Questioned about flip-flops during a Republican primary debate in March 2016, he characterized it as a virtue. “I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible,” he said.

China’s Currency

Trump’s overarching message, however, was that Washington was all talk and that he would actually do as he promised. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump declared: “Nobody knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it.”

On Wednesday, Trump looked past his China currency decision as he took to Twitter to try and bolster support from his base. “One by one we are keeping our promises - on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations. Big changes are happening!” Trump told his almost 28 million followers.

Trump told the Journal that he changed his mind on China because the country hasn’t manipulated the yuan for months, and because he needs Chinese cooperation on North Korea. Yet his explanation stands in contrast to his repeated and unequivocal pledge on the campaign trail, where he accused the Chinese of “stealing” American manufacturing jobs and criticized the Obama administration as feeble protectors of U.S. industry.

Trump promised in his “Contract With the American Voter,” released shortly before the Nov. 8 election, that he would “direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator.”

Debt ‘Hyperbole’

Officials within Trump’s administration acknowledge a disconnect between the campaign-trail promises and White House actions. For example, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Wednesday that the president’s promise to eliminate the national debt over eight years had been “hyperbole.”

“I’m not going to be able to pay off $20 trillion worth of debt in four years,” Mulvaney said in an interview with CNBC. “I’d be being dishonest with you if I said I could.”

While voters might forgive some exaggeration, the president’s stalled efforts on trade issues could prove an enduring headache. Trump has said he probably wouldn’t have been elected if not for his stance on trade. But beyond withdrawal from the yet-to-be-ratified Trans Pacific Partnership -- a policy also advocated by his campaign opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton -- he’s been slow to deliver on his most populist pledges, such as renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement or enacting new tariffs.

Cutler said she believes the Trump administration was surprised by the complexity of implementing its economic policy, particularly on trade, and that action has been curbed by the necessity of accommodating both international allies and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Surprise Factor

Trump has expressed some of that surprise. In the Journal interview, he explained his reversal on the Ex-Im Bank by saying, “It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies.” He also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping, during their meetings this month, explained China’s history with Korea and acknowledged that the situation is “not as simple as people would think.” Previously, after the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare failed, Trump said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Cutler said some of Trump’s early struggles have been compounded by “a team that’s clearly divided” on economic issues.

Trump has ordered a study on trade abuses, and taken some preliminary steps toward renegotiating NAFTA. But the president hasn’t even won confirmation for his U.S. Trade Representative nominee, Robert Lighthizer, much less ordered him to notify Mexico and Canada of proposed amendments to the decades-old trade pact.

Warm Relationship

What Trump Gets Wrong About Nafta

Nor has the threatened 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods materialized. Following a meeting last week with the Chinese president at his Mar-A-Lago estate, Trump and Xi agreed to spend the next 100 days on a plan to increase economic cooperation between the two countries. But the summit resulted in no concrete agreements, and administration officials briefing reporters afterward offered no specific examples of how American exports to China would be increased.

Trump spoke with Xi again by phone on Tuesday, and described their relationship in warm terms during a news conference on Wednesday.

“We had a very good bonding,” he said. “I think we had a very good chemistry together.”

Health-Care Failure

Trump has struggled to achieve other elements of his populist agenda in the face of Washington’s gridlock, and his aides openly admit that what Trump has termed the “swamp” has proved deeper than expected. There’s no better example than the botched attempt to scale back Obamacare, after House Republicans and Trump were unable to bridge divides between conservatives and moderates in their party.

Trump has also grappled with the complexity of foreign relations in the early months of his presidency, charting a course that’s often been at odds with his campaign trail rhetoric.

In Syria, the decision to launch a cruise-missile strike on an airfield after President Bashar al-Assad attacked a rebel-held town with deadly sarin gas appeared to break with Trump’s “America First” vision, while also alienating Russia, whose leaders Trump courted on the campaign trail.

“Right now, we are not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said at the news conference. “We may be at an all-time low with the relationship with Russia.”

Global Cop

During the campaign, Trump indicated the rest of the world shouldn’t expect the U.S. to serve as global policeman, but he seemed to be warming to the role on Wednesday. Declaring “the world is a mess,” the president predicted that “by the time we finish, I think it’s going to be a lot better place to live.”

The setting of the press conference -- in which Trump spoke alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg -- itself represented a sea change on policy that the president acknowledged during his remarks.

“I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete,” Trump said of the decades-old alliance.

The reversals have earned the president some praise from establishment foreign policy experts, including Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security. McCaul was a member of Trump’s transition team, but left the group when Trump sidelined New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shortly after the election.

“It’s been a very positive shift,” McCaul said Thursday during an appearance on MSNBC. “This sort of unpredictable nature of President Trump actually can be one of his best assets because it puts our foreign adversaries on notice, ones like Iran, Russia, North Korea, China to some extent, ISIS -- that we’re -- he’s not afraid to take action when necessary.”

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