As a candidate, Donald Trump touted the merits of uncertainty to keep adversaries off guard, vowing “we must as a nation be more unpredictable.” Unsurprisingly, his presidency is beginning with more unpredictability than certainty.
This, in itself, is somewhat unusual. Presidents tend to lay out campaign agendas and seek to implement them. But then Trump himself is unusual, the nation’s first President without prior experience in a political office or military position.
Beyond the obvious policy areas, his attitude gives both domestic supporters and international adversaries few clues how he’ll react to the inevitable unanticipated crises crossing his new Oval Office desk, especially given his often erratic responses to challenges and criticism.
Also, he enters the White House with unusually low public approval ratings for an incoming American president, raising the question: How will traditionally loyal Republican lawmakers react when they are skeptical of Trump’s demands?
Already, Trump and his top advisers have made numerous conflicting statements on key issues, including apparent retreats from stances that fired up his supporters. Recent confirmation hearings disclosed significant gaps between his views and those of some top nominees.
On the domestic side, Trump’s principal goals are repealing Obamacare, rescinding promptly what he regards as job-killing regulations, cutting business taxes and restricting illegal immigration, from Mexico and Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East.
Despite broad support of a Republican-controlled Congress, however, the speed of proposed changes remains uncertain, in part because of uncertainty over the specifics.
Trump told The Washington Post his goal in replacing Obamacare was “insurance for everybody” and said he is close to completing a plan to do that. But until he unveils details, uncertainty will remain over how he can achieve both universal coverage and decreased costs. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act increased coverage substantially, but about one in 10 Americans still lack insurance.
Another big question mark is Trump’s proposal to build “a great wall” to block illegal immigration and make Mexico pay for it.
More recently, Trump talked of requiring Congress to provide the funds and sending Mexico a later bill. While he reiterated he wants a “wall,” his choice for secretary of homeland security, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, said “a physical barrier in and of itself … will not do the job … It has to be really a layered defense.”
Uncertainty is even greater abroad, where Trump seems intent on developing closer relations with one major adversary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and risking more acrimonious ones with another, China.
In an interview with The Times of London, Trump once again labeled the major instrument of Western unity, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “obsolete,” but also called NATO “very important to me.”
But his nominee for secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, emphasized the importance of NATO, calling it “the most successful military alliance, probably, in modern world history, maybe ever.”
“The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with — Mr. Putin — and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps … to defend ourselves where we must,” Mattis said. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson called the American commitment to NATO “inviolable.”
Trump has also created doubts over his intentions in the unstable, faction-riven Middle East. Recent military gains raise questions over how he could wage a more effective war against ISIS. He also needs to decide whether to follow through with threats to withdraw from the landmark six-nation agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear development, a pact Mattis said “we have to live up to.”
Perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all, and potentially the most dangerous, is how Trump would react to the unforeseen foreign policy crises that inevitably require prompt action — or restraint — by the president.
So far, he has shown little of the latter in his tendency to react sharply to criticism with exaggerated responses assailing the character and records of those who question him. This may be a useful tactic for keeping domestic political foes off balance, but it could be far more problematic in coping with international situations where misunderstandings can lead to real trouble.
Since World War II, administrations from both parties have sought to create a sense of stability and certainty as the best way to prevent a global cataclysm. With Donald Trump, that may be about to change, which is why both critics and some supporters are a bit nervous as the 45th president takes office.