JAN. 15, 2017 — There’s a phrase President-elect Donald Trump uses when he is promising greatness for America in some area or other but can’t seem to capture the breadth of what he thinks he will achieve. That’s when he tells his audience he will get results “like you’ve never seen before.”
He made that outlandish prediction about caring for veterans, enforcing the Iran nuclear deal, defending America’s Christian heritage, adding auto industry jobs, even “winning” in general. “We will start winning again and winning like you’ve never seen before,” he said the night before his election victory.
Trump at heart is a creative, aggressive salesman who sees little value in restraining the message he delivers. Sometimes he plays the role of carnival barker, sometimes attack dog. Either way, he’d rather be forceful than accurate. Yet one of his pet boasts is also a true assessment of his unlikely political rise: Donald Trump will be a president like you’ve never seen before.
That is not an invitation to panic. It is a reminder to keep perspective after Friday, when he takes office as the nation’s outlier-in-chief.
Trump comes to the White House with no previous experience in government, military or national security affairs. He ran on the Republican ticket but values his own business judgment above party particulars. He is bombastic, intemperate, vain, mercurial and hyperbolic. He is also savvy, confident and instinctual. For millions of Americans, he embodies liberation from a suffocating era of insider governance. To these optimistic voters, his presidency brims with possibility.
Trump was all of this on the campaign trail, plus boorish and bigoted. He was also entertaining, enervating, combative and, to some, inspiring. Do not expect him to change once he is president. After all, he won. Voters were drawn to his outsider candidacy because he is a colorful deal-maker who doesn’t behave like anyone they’ve seen in the Oval Office. Trump supporters did not want a cookie-cutter president. They wanted someone who is different — and that’s who the country will get, deep flaws and all.
One of the early flashes of Trump’s unconventional approach came days after his election when he appeared to breach diplomatic protocol by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president. Under the peculiar rules of engagement with China, the United States does not officially recognize the government in Taipei, so speaking to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was either a shocking provocation or a monumental screw-up — but only if the president-elect meant to follow precedent. Trump did not. He took the call and put China on notice that he can play hardball. It was a creative move, and low-risk because he’s not yet commander-in-chief. Maybe it gives Trump a tiny edge in future negotiations with Beijing. A little shocking, but mostly just different.
On the economy, Trump has even more permission to be unorthodox because he takes office on a feverish promise to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.” He’s not even in the job yet, and he’s badgering American companies to preserve or build factories on U.S. soil. Presidents normally don’t do this because in America the government does not set industrial policy. Ultimately, meddling in the work of CEOs is a sideshow to Trump’s best chances to boost job growth: working with the Republican-controlled Congress to roll back corporate taxes as part of a larger tax reform package while paring back burdensome federal regulations. He has a shot at an immigration deal as well, though he’s chosen to package it with an unlikely plan to build a wall along the southern border and send Mexico the bill.
His legacy as president may come down to how much he listens to his advisers. Trump sounded foolish in his benign take on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and harsh skepticism of America’s intelligence agencies. But at least two of his cabinet picks, Rex Tillerson (secretary of state) and James Mattis (defense), have contradicted him. In confirmation hearings they sounded alarms on Russia and several other questionable Trump notions about foreign policy. Their counsel will be crucial.
Trump is a singular figure, yet only to a point. Every president comes to the office with an ambitious agenda and only the faintest notion of what the job entails. Like every one of his predecessors, the 45th president of the United States will learn to make wise decisions, or he will fail at the job.