The American political world is hearing footsteps. They're going backward.
The backtracking – on several issues, from export assistance to the Federal Reserve Bank, this week alone – is the latest phenomenon from a presidential administration that can't seem to get its footing. Two steps forward – and not one but two steps back. It has left the Washington establishment confused – and Donald Trump's constituency reeling.
New U.S. presidents, especially those – like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – with no Washington governing experience, almost always suffer growing pains once they decamp to the American capital. But Mr. Trump, the most decisive of candidates on the stump, often displays a surprising indecision in the White House – and a startling impulse to change his decisions.
The result is fresh perspective on the Trump style, perfectly suited for the Snapchat era: The President's stated views have a tendency to disappear from the political screen.
All presidents change their minds, of course – George H. W. Bush issued his 1988 "read-my-lips" assurances that he wouldn't sign a bill that raised taxes, only to do so in 1990 – but Mr. Trump's policy reversals are unusually frequent. They include his skepticism of NATO (which he now regards as a "bulwark of international peace") and his vows to tear up the North American free-trade agreement (which he has since modulated).
From New Hampshire town halls to California television broadcasts, Mr. Trump as a candidate repeatedly said he wanted to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, the country's official export credit agency, which provides loans to promote exports of American goods and which, beginning in 1936, was an indispensable element in the construction of the Pan-American Highway that links Alaska and Canada with the southernmost reaches of Latin America. Now he's girding to fill two top positions in the agency, established 83 years ago in the Franklin Roosevelt era, reinvigorating it after a period of stagnation because of vacancies.
From Iowa farmsteads to Indiana union halls, Mr. Trump as a candidate described and decried China as a "currency manipulator." This week, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, simply, "They're not a currency manipulator." Both the Ex-Im Bank, as it is known, and the China currency question were populist flashpoints in Mr. Trump's courting of blue-collar voters in states where workers were disillusioned and where the Manhattan businessman stoked anger against the Washington establishment.
Another familiar target in the Trump political portfolio was the Federal Reserve Bank – which since its establishment a century ago has been a favourite object of populist criticism – and its chief, Janet Yellen, appointed by former president Barack Obama. As a campaigner, Mr. Trump said that "when her time is up I would most likely replace" Ms. Yellen. This week Mr. Trump said the Fed chair was "not toast," explaining, "I like her, I respect her." Why all the changes, and what are the implications for the Trump constituency, a formidable new force on the American political landscape – but one with few organizing principles besides an inchoate sense of anti-elitism and, at least until now, an abiding faith in its wealthy spokesman?
Perhaps it is because Mr. Trump, while a gifted campaigner, is constrained by the realities he sees now that he is in the Oval Office rather than in campaign settings. ("The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big," he told the Journal. "You know, you're talking about life and death.") Perhaps it is because the art of the deal that he promoted and then perfected in real estate and casino circles is not as easily transferable from New York to Washington as he suggested as a candidate. And perhaps because the architecture of the American political system, beleaguered as it is, is not congenial to a leader like Mr. Trump.
Indeed, the alliance between a populist rebellion and a plutocratic leader is a curious phenomenon, almost unknown in American politics. The classic populist leaders in American history were figures such as William Jennings Bryan, whose appeal was bred in the despairing prairies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Huey Long, whose appeal grew out of the poverty of the Mississippi Delta in roughly the first third of the 20th century.
To be sure, earlier wealthy presidents led liberal movements – Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind – but both the 32nd and the 35th presidents were practical men, steeped in political experience. Mr. Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy during the First World War, a Democratic vice-presidential nominee and governor of New York, at the time by far the largest state in the union. Mr. Kennedy was the son of an ambassador and Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, a member of the House of Representatives and a senator before entering the White House.
And while Mr. Roosevelt attacked what he called "organized money" in a celebrated Madison Square Garden speech just before his 1936 re-election ("They are unanimous in their hate for me," he said of the big financial interests, "and I welcome their hatred"), he was more conventional a president than is Mr. Trump.
The collision between Mr. Trump and the Washington establishment has frustrated both, and the political stalemate that Mr. Trump (and his predecessor, Mr. Obama) vowed to obliterate remains firmly in place. In the Obama years, the principal struggle was between Democrats determined to produce change after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, and in the Trump months, the struggle has been as much between the White House and the Republican rebels who foiled the effort to replace the Obamacare health plan.
In the wake of his failure to win sufficient votes for his replacement plan, Mr. Trump said he was ready to move on to a comprehensive overhaul of the American tax system. Now he has suggested he wants to return to health care. And tax overhaul? This week he backed away from the so-called "border adjustment tax," which a group of young conservatives said would raise the cost of "the Jose Cuervo tequila that's in your happy-hour margarita." The President's new view on the tax, which would have implications for trade with Canada, is a classic example of the confusion Mr. Trump is sowing in Washington. It was a central element in the plan proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mr. Trump's ally in the health-care battle. Its elimination from White House consideration will almost certainly delight the Republican rebels who sank Mr. Trump's health-care plan.