Trump: Five political minefields facing president-elect

Donald Trump speaks in the lobby of Trump Tower. Image copyright Getty Images

It's still more than a month before Donald Trump takes the oath of office, but it's not too early to think about the challenges he will face in the White House.

The new president will have formidable assets at his disposal. The chief executive has broad unilateral powers, and his party controls both chambers of Congress. As long as Republicans stay unified, they will be able to advance a broad range of conservative priorities that have been on the back-burner for more than a decade.

The danger, however, is that they could choose a losing battle - or a winning one whose victory comes at too high a price.

The history books are littered with presidents whose electoral mandates crumbled in the early days of their presidency. Barack Obama and Democrats saw their large governing majorities in 2009 vanish two years later after a bruising fight to pass healthcare reform.

A push for universal healthcare also cost Bill Clinton dearly in 1993. George HW Bush's presidency ran aground, in part, due to tax concessions he made to Democrats in the 1990 budget negotiations. Ronald Reagan's tax reforms early in his presidency sank his approval ratings before an economic recovery changed his fortunes.

As Mr Trump looks ahead to his presidency, there are countless opportunities - but the path to success is a veritable minefield, where one false step could lead to ruin.

Here's a look at five particularly dangerous potential pitfalls.


Medicare privatisation

Donald Trump campaigned on repealing Barack Obama's healthcare reform programme, and the Republican Congress seems eager to follow through (timeline to be determined, of course).

What Mr Trump didn't campaign on, and yet congressional Republican leadership seems enamoured with, was any kind of modification or privatisation of the government-run healthcare programme for the elderly, Medicare.

In fact, Mr Trump was quite clear that he wouldn't touch the social safety net that provides retirement and medical care for the poor, disabled and elderly.

"Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid," candidate Trump said at a Republican forum in 2015. "And it's not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut."

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Image caption Paul Ryan wants Medicare reform, which makes some Trump supporters nervous

Yet changing Medicare from a government-run, single-payer programme to a state-managed voucher-backed premium support system has long been a goal of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"Medicare has got some serious problems because of Obamacare," Mr Ryan said a few days after Mr Trump was elected. "Those things are part of our plan to replace Obamacare."

Mr Ryan is the leader of a segment of conservatives who view Medicare as a means of fostering dependence on government - a fortified expansion of centralised power that presents a growing financial burden on the federal budget.

The challenge for Republicans, however, is that, unlike the heavily politicised Obamacare reforms, Medicare is immensely popular. A 2015 poll found 60% of Americans viewed the programme as "working well", and 77% said the programme was "very important".

Back in 2004, newly re-elected President George W Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress made a similar run at privatising Social Security, the government-managed retirement programme.

Those efforts collapsed without so much as a legislative vote, thanks to withering opposition from Democrats and a sceptical public. It marked the beginning of Mr Bush's sharp decline in popularity that culminated in sweeping Democratic victories in the 2006 mid-term elections and President Obama in 2008.

Ann Coulter, a fervent Trump backer, succinctly summed up the shape of the pitfall that now may await her party.

"Medicare IS NOT WHAT THE ELECTION WAS FOUGHT OVER," she tweeted. "If Ryan wants to change Medicare, then run for president on that and see how far you get."

Mind the mine: Misinterpreting your mandate for change is classic post-election overreach danger.


Tax cuts

Although he didn't regularly dwell on it at his campaign rallies, candidate Trump had a fairly detailed tax-cut plan. Perhaps the reason for his reticence was that the benefits - according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center - would be showered primarily on the wealthy.

The average tax cut was pegged at $2,940 per person, amounting to an after-tax income increase of 4.1%. Those earning over $3.7m, however, would receive a tax cut of roughly $1.1m, for an after-tax income boost of 14%.

During the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton called this "trumped up trickle-down economics" - the theory, first embraced by President Ronald Reagan, that the benefits of tax cuts for the rich would eventually filter onto the lower-income brackets through increased spending.

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Image caption Who will benefit most from Republican tax-reform proposals?

The label didn't stick (and was, in fact, mocked as being forced), but the attacks may sting if they accompany hard figures in legislation signed by the man who won the White House as a champion of the working class.

There's some sign that the forthcoming Trump administration may already be backing away from this particular political landmine - and heading toward a new one, instead.

During a recent interview Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin said that any tax reform would be benefit-neutral for the wealthy.

"Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions, so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class," he said.

While that sounds inoffensive, the two biggest individual tax deductions are also two of the most beloved by the American middle class - for home mortgage interest and charitable donations. Any politicians, Republican or Democrat, touch those at their political peril.

Mind the mine: Mr Trump campaigned against a moneyed global elite. If they reap the rewards of Republican tax reforms, he may lose some of his populist lustre.


Imperial overreach

One of the ways Mr Trump framed himself as a different kind of Republican presidential candidate was by condemning his party's military adventurism.

Where just a decade earlier his party had marched in lockstep behind George W Bush in defending the Iraq War, now Mr Trump stood on a Republican primary debate stage, condemned the action as misguided and won.

He said Libyan intervention was a mistake and that the US should let Russia shoulder more of the military burden in Syria. While he criticised Chinese trade practices, he said US allies in Asia must shoulder more of the costs of their own defence.

Positions like these were largely why the Republican foreign policy establishment abandoned the Trump campaign in droves and why the president-elect has seemed hard-pressed to settle on a nominee for secretary of state.

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Image caption Donald Trump campaigned against the Iraq War - and won

One man already on the Trump White House team, however, is retired General Michael Flynn - and he appears to support the kind of robust, interventionist foreign policy that Mr Trump dismissed.

In his recent book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, the man who is tabbed to become Mr Trump's national security adviser writes that the US is already fighting a global war.

"We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua," he writes. "We are under attack, not only from nation-states directly, but also from Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Isis and countless other terrorist groups."

If Mr Flynn is joined on Mr Trump's foreign policy team by someone like John Bolton - an Iraq War architect whose name has been linked to the secretary of state job - President Trump may be considerably more hawkish on foreign policy than Candidate Trump ever was.

Mind the mine: The American public will follow a president into battle, but war is also an easy way to destroy a presidency. Just ask George W Bush. Or Lyndon Johnson. Or Harry Truman.


Going rogue

Mr Trump turned heads this week when he sat down with former Democratic Vice-President Al Gore to discuss climate change and global environmental issues.

He shocked many of his conservative backers a few weeks earlier when, after meeting with Mr Obama, he expressed support for some portions of the president's healthcare reform.

During the campaign he unveiled a childcare and maternity leave proposal that, in the words of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, "out-Democrats the Democrats".

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Image caption Bipartisanship could make - or break - the Trump presidency

In other words, Mr Trump - who was a Democrat as recently as 2009 - has shown a proclivity for entertaining issues and positions that run counter to Republican orthodoxy.

There's certainly an upside for being a president who's willing to buck his own party and reach across the aisle for support. It was at the heart of Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy during his presidency, when he adopted and moderated popular Republican positions on welfare reform and crime-fighting to boost his own standing.

Such a course comes with its own set of risks, however, particularly for someone like Mr Trump. Embracing a liberal position could jeopardise his Republican backing in Congress and among the party's grass-roots supporters. Even with his best efforts, however, he will be hard-pressed to attract much love from the political left. His divisive presidential campaign has made him too much of a villain among Democrats for that to happen.

Mind the mine: Only Nixon could go to China, as the saying goes. Mr Trump could decide to break the partisan logjam and advance a popular progressive priority. Then again, when Nixon became mired in scandal, he was left with few Republican allies to protect him. It's not a happy place for a president to be.


Doing nothing

These possible pitfalls are enough to make even the most self-confident of politicians unsteady, reluctant to make a move lest they find the political ground crumbling beneath their feet.

Inaction is not an option for Mr Trump, however. He was elected to get results.

His supporters were so frustrated by years of partisan gridlock that they turned to an outsider - a political novice - in hopes of fixing a system they saw as hopelessly broken. More of the same is a losing proposition.

Mr Trump will have to find some policy wins if he wants to renew his lease on the White House in four years, and a few token wins - a saved Carrier plant here, a slightly less costly Air Force One contract there - likely won't cut it.

Mind the mine: If Trump does too much, he could be ruined. If he does too little, he could be ruined. He already has the lowest recorded popularity of any incoming White House occupant. There's a minefield ahead no matter which way he turns. Presidenting is hard.

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