Trump Needs to Earn His Mandate

Polls give him the highest negatives of any incoming president in modern history.

Not on board.

Photographer: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters taking to the streets against Donald Trump are exercising their constitutional rights. But they are wrong to declare that Trump is not their president: He won legitimately and, support him or not, he will be president of all Americans.  

That's not sufficient for his chief cheerleaders. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Trump's designated White House chief of staff, asserted that the president-elect won an "historic landslide" and Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, claimed he won a "mandate" from the voters.

Trump did win the Electoral College, making his elevation to the presidency beyond dispute.

That's it. David Wasserman, analyst at the Cook Political Report, estimates Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote by more than 2 million, four times the margin achieved in 2000 by Al Gore, who also lost the Electoral College.

In the history of U.S. presidential elections, no president-elect has ever lost the popular vote by as much as Trump. This is not the stuff of a mandate. 

If his slim margin in Michigan holds, Trump probably won 306 electoral votes. That is far fewer than the number of electors captured by George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This is not the stuff of landslides.

Unfortunately, little that Trump has done since Nov. 8 has reassured skeptics or helped close the wounds, most of which he opened. The transition is chaotic, reflecting a leader who has given little thought to the responsibilities and requirements of leading a great nation.

The appointment of the alt-right provocateur Steve Bannon to top White House counselor, and of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions -- who was rejected for a federal judgeship in the 1980s after allegations that he had made racist comments -- as attorney general, further rattled already unnerved racial and religious minorities. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose marriage to the president-elect's daughter is his chief qualification, is playing a major role in assembling the new administration. Reports suggest he was responsible for dumping the transition chief, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who successfully prosecuted Kushner's father for tax evasion and jury tampering a decade ago.

This doesn't engender confidence. Neither does the range of people under consideration for top cabinet posts. Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state?

It's not unusual for a president-elect to shade or adjust campaign promises and policies to reflect realities. But no one has seemed to wing it the way Trump is.

He could be backtracking on a huge effort to deport undocumented immigrants: He now says he may only go after criminals, which the Obama administration already is doing, though Trump estimates the number of those who could be rounded up at 2 million to 3 million, possibly 10 times the actual level. He's pulling back on repealing all of Obamacare, but may be open to breaking his campaign vow not to cut back on Medicare. Let's not even get into the crossed signals on national security.

Even the tough anti-lobbying restrictions, which the transition team says bars lobbyists from participating, contain a giant loophole: Candidates need only deregister as lobbyists to qualify to be appointed to oversee the area they lobbied.  

Some Trump supporters rationalize the protests by drawing an analogy to the concerns expressed after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. 

That's a false parallel. Then, many Democrats worried about the Republican president-elect's campaign pronouncements and positions. But he had served eight years as governor of California, which he led with common-sense conservatism, and he wasn't a hater and had surrounded himself with experienced adults such as James Baker.

Apart from policy concerns, Trump is coming into office after hurling insults at women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and people with disabilities. There is no one around him who remotely resembles Jim Baker.

Conway charged that the protests "degrade the office of the presidency." Someone should tell her about the First Amendment. Trump initially blamed "professional protesters, incited by the media." But the reactions and protests were spontaneous. Sixth- and seventh-graders at an inner-city charter school in Washington were in tears the morning after the election. There has been a surge of racist attacks on social media and even on elite university campuses. The worry is that Trump's behavior has given greater license to this ugliness.

Only by his words, actions, appointments and something almost unheard of for him, a few apologies, can he start to mitigate the damage.

Post-election public opinion surveys capture the situation. The president-elect's favorable ratings have risen a bit, to 42 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll, but 55 percent of the public still has an unfavorable view, the highest negative for an incoming president in modern history. In a Washington Post poll, only three of 10 respondents said Trump had a mandate for his agenda.

He has to earn confidence and trust; he's not off to an auspicious start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.