The 45th President of the United States will be sworn in on January 20, 2017, and with the inauguration begins a new era. The Obama era will be directly challenged as the Trump-Pence administration ushers in a new agenda of change. The degree and the nature of the change remains to be seen. Canadians have never been so interested and, many would add, so concerned.
Since 2000, America has faced challenges as never before—the biggest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil on 9-11, participating in the two longest wars in U.S. history (Afghanistan and Iraq) and the most serious recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Today, new challenges arise with cybersecurity threats, technological advancements, continued terrorism across the globe, and an emboldened Russia and China. Moreover, climate change and humanitarian tragedies in the Middle East and beyond, along with the rise of populism in Europe add to the complexities awaiting the new president. These are clearly unusual and very uncertain times.
It has been more than one month since Donald Trump won the presidential contest, and there are less than five weeks left before the inauguration. Yet, President-elect Donald J. Trump continues to dominate the news as no other PEOTUS has in recent memory. The transition period is an opportunity to observe the usual passage of power between an outgoing administration and a new one. But this transition has been a mixture of theatre, controversy and surprises.
Never a day goes by without a Trump headline or controversy. Just recently, he questioned the competence of the CIA in the emerging Russian hacking scandal (soon to be the subject of Congressional hearings). In addition, he has downplayed the importance of the presidential daily intelligence briefing.
The Democratic Party is still coming to grips with the 2016 election outcome. The leadership seems in dire need of rejuvenation, new blood and new ideas. To most Democrats, Trump may have won by appealing to baser instincts, but the Democrats are not without fault in the rise of what Donald Trump often calls a “movement.” Losing the so-called “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin is more a product of Democratic failure than Trump’s electoral ingenuity.
Arguably, the first elected president to dominate social media (Twitter and Facebook) with 40 million followers—Trump continues in large measure his usual pattern of campaigning that led to his victory. Twitter warfare, anti-mainstream media rants and campaign-style rallies interspersed with nominees that range from the conventional to the non-conventional dominate the airwaves. The more conventional choices, including some like chief of staff Reince Priebus, Transport Secretary nominee Elaine Chao, Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis could resemble that of any other Republican inner circle. Even some of his economic selections—straight from Wall Street/Goldman Sachs—only surprise observers because of Trump’s campaign rhetoric about the financial elite, not because they are unconventional.
Other choices, however, show that this will be an administration of real change and one that will contrast with any other since the post-World War II era. Some of his nominees actually rank as bizarre, such as Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic now nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Betsy DeVos, a critic of public schools who will be Secretary of Education, and Rick Perry, who once campaigned to abolish the Department of Energy, will now be its head. These cabinet appointees are clearly at odds with the very missions of their posts.
Yet, when one recalls Trump’s campaign policies, we can conclude America has an unusual president-elect and we are in for even more unusual times. Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, Housing and Urban Development Secretary nominee Ben Carson and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, spark controversy because of their credentials and government inexperience, but they are in line with the Trump vision and adamantly opposed to Obama’s policies.
He may have won a modest mandate (nearly 3 million voters less than opponent Hillary Clinton with a popular vote of only 46.2 percent, with barely a 53 percent voter turnout overall), but he is acting as if his mandate is clear and unequivocal. His recent exchange with the Taiwanese leadership, and the predictable reaction from China, shows a president-elect who has little interest with diplomatic niceties. Usually, initiatives in foreign policy remain the purview of the incumbent president and current commander-in-chief until the new president assumes office. Trump’s twitter response to China’s reaction shows that this was not an accidental exchange and likely signals a reset of the U.S.–Chinese relationship.
While he displayed some new subtleties in the days following the November 8th election regarding his opponent, Secretary Clinton, Trump is sticking close to his campaign script. Expect moves in the first 100 days to repeal Obamacare, introduce tax reform with lower taxes for corporation and individuals, unveil a series of cancellations of Obama executive orders, abolish an array of environment regulations, initiate a major infrastructure building program, and name a justice to the Supreme Court.
He has already indicated a desire to opt out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty (TPP). Opting out of the Iran nuclear deal may be more complicated because of its multi-power character (Britain, France, Germany, and Russia favor the deal), but Trump will certainly weigh in with a position that will differ from the Obama administration. The Paris Accords on climate change and his ruminations about NATO will also be the target of the new president’s vision on the environment and security matters.
The media news outlets will have difficulty following this Trump “steamroller,” which is what the new president wishes. It is becoming more obvious that his tweets are more calculating than improvisation.
This said, the incoming Trump administration will not be without its pitfalls. The Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8) will be tested once Trump presents his conflict of interest policy regarding his business interests. If anything, these potential conflicts issues should be the major concern of the Trump entourage.
The cabinet he is forming seems made up primarily of elderly white male billionaires and many are inexperienced in government. Will they share the same demeanor that the president-elect deployed on the campaign trail and, at times, since? While he seems to run circles around the media, we can expect a demanding and more inquisitive media throughout the Trump administration.
In Canada, the approach seems more one of calm vigilance and some strategic proactivity. Clearly, the outgoing Obama-Biden administration ends on a positive note with Canada and its new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau (elected a year ago). Will this continue under the Trump-Pence administration? Regarding crucial issues such as trade, security and the border, we can expect serious attempts by Prime Minister Trudeau to find common ground with the new administration.
Hopefully, early Canadian concerns about the survival of NAFTA will give way to openness to discussion and possible negotiations in areas that may actually be in need of adjustment and new approaches. After all, even GOP governors have generally been supportive of the Canada–U.S. trade relationship and recognize its benefits.
The NATO relationship remains an important bulwark in dealing with defense and strategic concerns for both the U.S. and Canada. That too may be in need of some adjustment, but not its fundamental tenets for peace and stability for the allies in NATO. After all, “making America safe again” requires strong alliances.
The recent approval of Congress regarding pre-clearance on land for travelers between U.S. and Canada shows further that cooperation is possible and can work in the interests of both countries.
As we enter the holiday season and await the formality of the Electoral College vote for the 45th President of the United States on December 19, along with the completion of the new cabinet of the incoming Trump administration, we can safely assume that we are entering an uncertain and unpredictable period with an “unusual” president. Not a time for the faint of heart.