US Presidential Election: What awaits the new president?

Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. It was a narrow victory. He received 304 electoral votes, which ranks 46th out of the 58 elections for the US presidency. That is more than George W. Bush received in either 2000 or 2004, but less than any other President since Jimmy Carter won with 297 electors in 1976. President Obama, for example, won 365 electoral college votes in 2008, and Ronald Reagan won 525 of the 538 electors in 1984.

Read Amcham´s analysis.

How close was the outcome?

Much has been made of the fact that President-elect Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes (despite all the criticism of pollsters, the prediction of a 2% Hillary Clinton national margin was sound; she won by 65.8 million votes to 62.9 million). Opponents to his victory note that his electoral college victory depended on winning Michigan (16 electoral college votes) by 11,612 votes out of 4.5 million cast, Pennsylvania (20 electors) by 68,236 votes out of 5.9 million cast, and Wisconsin (10 electors) by 27,257 votes out of 2.9 million cast. True. It is also true that Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by a slender 43,785 votes and New Hampshire by an even narrower margin of 2,732 votes. This was an election won, and lost, by a razor’s edge.

How will the vote affect the new President’s ability to get things done?

That President-elect Trump lost the popular vote will influence his ability to govern, because it will be used by Democrats in the Senate to justify using some of the same tactics, such as filibustering nominations, that the Republicans employed to defeat President Obama’s initiatives. Democrats are already hinting that they will fight the nomination of key figures, such as the nominee for secretary of state and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice. Whether the Democrats will succeed to create as hard a resistance as the Republicans did in 2009 depends on the nerves of 10 Democratic Senators who are up for re-election in 2018 in states that President-elect Trump won.

What will be the economic priorities?

The new president may also be facing more complications with his policy agenda than it seemed after the Republicans kept control of the Senate and House. The Republican mantra of cancelling Obamacare has been quieted by the significant increase in the number of Americans (6.4 million) who registered for it in November and December. The current plan of attack seems to be to vote to repeal Obamacare immediately, but to leave it in place until a substitute can be conceived. This is a risky strategy for two reasons. The first is obvious: what if more people decide they like Obamacare and the Republicans cannot convince them that their substitute will be better? The second, related risk is that Obamacare is President’s Obama’s primary domestic policy legacy (and it is in some ways as significant as Roosevelt’s New Deal), and President Obama may leave office with the highest approval rating of any President since Ronald Reagan. He will be an active, and potentially highly effective, advocate for saving Obamacare. The fight over health care may determine not only the success of Donald Trump’s presidency, but whether the Republicans can maintain control of both the Senate and the House.

What the president-elect plans to do in other policy areas seems less certain. He has put together a team of highly accomplished individuals who, on the surface, have incompatible ideas of what they would like to achieve in office. The president-elect enters office with a reputation in business for letting his executives fight it out to determine what course to take. The current selection of officials indicates he would like to continue with that approach to management in government. That would mean that the investment in infrastructure, tax reform, and possibly even climate change/environmental policy will be subject to turf battles within the administration before the final form is presented to Congress.

What will be the foreign policy priorities?

In foreign policy, his administration will be defined early by how it answers three questions. The first will be how to handle the claims of the US intelligence community- and supported by both the Obama administration and significant Republican members of Congress- that Russia interfered with– but did not substantially influence- US elections. This is a highly volatile subject, even for organizations like AmCham to report. It is necessary to say that much coverage of the issue in the media, and comments by officials here, have distorted what has happened. The bare facts follow. US intelligence services discovered the Democratic National Committee was hacked (and, although the Republican Party contests this claim, the Republican National Committee). Some of these emails were then released through Wikileaks and DC Leaks starting before the Democratic Convention. US intelligence agencies investigated the source of the hacking, and concluded the hackers were connected to the Russian government. This was announced during the campaign by the intelligence agencies. After the election, President Obama announced that the investigation
into the hacking by 17 intelligence agencies concluded that the hackers were acting on the orders of the Russian government. The White House further stated that the hacking had not determined who won the election. The simultaneous request for a recount of the vote in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan was not related to the investigation of hacking. The recount initiative was organized by Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate. The Clinton campaign sent a lawyer to be present at the recounts, but stated that they did not believe a recount would change the outcome of the election or that the election had been manipulated. Donald Trump questioned whether the intelligence agencies had correctly identified who had ordered the hacking. It seems he reached this conclusion without being briefed by the intelligence agencies on the investigation. He has subsequently asserted he possesses information not known to the intelligence agencies, and will make this information public this week.

This is not a matter of Obama saying the Russians won the election for Trump or Trump saying they did not– as has appeared in the press here and elsewhere. US intelligence agencies say the Russians hacked the Democratic Party and Republican Party servers, and released Democratic Party emails. President Obama and Republican leaders of Congress say this information warrants further investigation- of the past three presidential elections (two of which President Obama won)- and possible consequences, but not a new election. President-elect Trump says he has better information. How he handles the Putin question ranks up with Obamacare as the most immediate threat to a successful presidency. Answer it poorly, and he may face a revolt among Republicans in Congress that could cripple his economic agenda.

The second issue is the recent US abstention on the UN resolution denouncing Israeli plans to allow Jewish settlers to build housing in the occupied territories. This issue will not only determine how supportive the powerful, domestic Jewish lobby is to his presidency, but will set the terms for his relationship with key Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia.

The final issue– what sort of relationship to have with China- may not be so immediate, but likely is the most important in the long term. During the campaign, Donald Trump indicated that he would be more demanding and confrontational with China. During the transition, he spoke directly with the Taiwanese President. This phone conversation deviated from long-established US policy, and angered China. China may not wait for the new president to test the relationship; they may want to show America and the world who sets the terms of the relationship.

What are his chances to succeed?

President Trump faces an less dire economic and foreign policy situation than his predecessor (who faced the consequences of the 2007 financial crisis and aftermath of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq). On the other hand, it appears he will have less of a “honeymoon”- the period of good will given to new presidents by the populace and both parties– due to the narrowness of his victory and the harshness of the campaign.

His mandate to govern is composed of many, often contradictory pieces. Part of it wants to build a wall on the border of Mexico; part of it does not want to pay a dime to do it. Part of his supporters want the US government to invest in upgrading the country’s infrastructure; part of it helped block Barack Obama’s attempts to do that. Part of his support wants to repeal Obamacare; part of it just renewed or registered for it. Part of his support wants to repeal trade treaties and stop globalization; part of it has been the strongest supporters of free global trade. Part of his supporters want to confront China: another part were the primary supporters of bringing them into the global market.

Donald Trump proved to be the Republican candidate most capable of attracting the two awkwardly co-existing forces within the Party: the traditionalist social and economically conservative pro-business party and the more nationalistic Tea Party movement. He did it by appealing to the Tea Party elements first and then persuading the more traditional elements that he would be better for them than Hillary Clinton. Not many thought it possible.

His next task will require a different set of tools. On January 20th, the president-elect will move from words to action. The presidency is a battle of attrition. With each decision, you win or lose support. Since elections allow promises and governing requires compromise, it helps to start with a large margin of voters who are unified about what they want you do. President Obama promised hope and change– which meant different things to different people– and went from 69.5 million votes in 2008 to 66 million votes four years later (on the other hand, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush all increased their vote count). Donald Trump has a margin of a little over 100,000 votes in three states, and a nearly 3 million vote deficit nationwide. He has no support he can lose and still win the next election. That means that he likely will not only need to keep the Republicans in Congress on his side, but find some support among the Democrats for his economic agenda. The key pivot point of his presidency may be Chuck Schumer, the new Democratic leader of the Senate and longtime acquaintance from New York whose political career was aided by Trump donations in the past. 


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