Tuesday, January 31, 2017

President Trump: The First 10 days.

A recurring question, during the elections, was whether Donald J Trump was competent to be the President and most argued that being a successful business, so they say, he certainly could do the job at the White House. In his first ten days in the Oval Office, President Trump and his cronies has not ceased to amaze one of their lack of expertise and their stubborn will to run the highest office in the US in a style that has even some Republicans wondering what the next three years and 355 days are expected to be like.  Clearly this will go down in history as 'The Twitter Presidency" given the propensity of Mr. Trump to use the social media as the means to announce policy, vent his anger and react to the criticisms.

If there were any hopes of a more mature and sober President to emerge from the skin of Donald J Trump these were quickly dashed when Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, appeared before the press and basically told them they were wrong in the way they reported the inauguration of the 45th President and then presented 'alternative facts' to support his, and his masters, view that the crowds were indeed the largest ever in history. About the same time President Trump was at the CIA headquarters informing his audience that the Media are horrible people and in effect he will be at war with them, presumably as he sees them as the 'enemy'.

President Trump also then signed an executive order withdrawing USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc of the Pacific Rim countries including Canada. While the agreement would only take effect in Feb 2018, subject to 86% of the countries ratifying the agreement, Mr, Trump really killed the agreement before it even reached the stage of being blessed. While major modifications to the agreement were warranted scraping the agreement only plays into China's trading strategy given that the Chinese have, in the last 2 years, made commitments of investing $368 billion into the Latin American countries. While some may argue that bilateral agreements could recover the lost ground without giving the concessions that the TPP gave, the fact remains bilateral agreements will take years to put into place.

Next in line was approving the Keystone Xl pipeline which is to run 1900 KM from Alberta Canada southwards to connect to other pipelines to take Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast. Other than to upset the environmental lobby the pipelines will not necessarily benefit the US economy directly and explains why the Canadian Prime Minister was quick to welcome the decision. However the executive order by President Trump ignores the years of work done in various government agencies to ensure the pipeline does not damage a fragile ecosystem in the areas it is supposed to go through. It was interesting that about the time the order was being signed a 'gag order' was issued to the US EPA disallowing anyone from making any public statements or press releases.

The following day the big election promise of building the wall on the border with Mexico was turned into an executive order, with the small print that initially the US will pay for the wall and then later Mexico will reimburse the US. Mexico was quick to respond that there was no such agreement and the forthcoming visit of the Mexican President was cancelled by the Mexicans, (even though the Trump camp tried to make out the cancellation was a mutual decision). Clearly the backlash of American taxpayers having to pay for the wall was not going down too well with his supporters and before any noise could be heard the Sean Spicer suggested that the White House was considering a 20% tax of Mexican imports which would be more than enough to pay for the wall. Indeed, Mr Spicer clearly is not a student of economics because such a tax is always paid by the importer of record, which in this case is the US company importing the goods, so in the end the consumer would pay for the wall, not the Mexicans.

It would seem that things were getting a bit too stuck for the new team in the White House so the final coup de grace was then administered when President Trump signed the order banning people from seven countries (all Muslim) from entering the United States. While this was not 'a total and complete ban on all Muslims,' it certainly was the most ill conceived of his decisions. Yes the President has the right to make the borders secure, and yes he can pass such an order, provided it does not violate the constitution but here is the chilly aspect of it all; he never consulted the Justice Department, or the Homeland Security or the State Department on this order and certainly none of them were taken into confidence to be prepared for the effects of it.

Insofar as these are the decisions he made we must step back from them an look at some of the issues of style and substance in putting these executive orders out. Also by seeing what has happened since then we have to certainly wonder what lies ahead. When senior State Department officials, who are career diplomats, voiced their concern and dissent over the last order, through an age old tradition used by career diplomats, the quick response was to hint to these career technocrats that they are free to leave office. Unlike other government agencies generally the career diplomats in the State department are retained by every new president and only some ambassadorial positions are allocated to the incumbent President to allocate.

While the acting Attorney General may well have been in the right about questioning the legality of the immigration executive order, she may well have been wrong to question the policy, the whole affair was badly handled. Yes she should have sought to meet with the White House and express her reservations before going public, but irrespective it would seem that without a prior consultation on the new executive order the acting Attorney General may well have felt like someone being ordered to do whatever the White House wants.

The troubling aspect of this new President is that he has shown a clear inability to trust anyone and certainly not to lean on them for advice. Its almost an arrogant self belief in himself and while this may work within the executive branch of the government it is going to be a different matter when dealing with Congress in this style and manner. On a lighter note one can only be amazed at how President Trump can embellish facts to suit his own motives to the verge of lying. A case in point is when asked about the chaos his travel ban imposed he 'tweeted' that it was really the Delta airlines computer glitch that caused the chaos and his order was working 'very very nicely'. Well President Trump the Delta airlines computer glitch was 24 hours after your order went into effect.

The essential question we have to ask is whether this man is competent to understand that while he is the most powerful man on earth there are checks and balances to his power and these come from Media, the Judges and the Congress. Yes Judges can strike down his executive orders if they violate the existing laws, and yes the Media can question his decisions. This is something that we will need some getting used to.

For the record I did not support Hilary Clinton but rather felt Bernie Sanders would have been the best choice for the US. Alas we now have to stop following the media, even though I doubt he can muzzle it, and follow something called Twitter. Welcome to the Twitter Presidency.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Obama Farewell, Meryl Streep and Trump: A Thought.

US Presidents have, over the many decades, had varying degrees of send offs; some inglorious and shameful, some quiet and unnoticed, and then there is President Obama’s farewell, which stands out as emotional and moving. I listened to his farewell speech in Chicago three times, not because I wanted to record some facts, but simply because tenor, depth and resonance of those words needed to heard again and again. There are many too who would criticize the man for being good on words and short on deeds, and as he put it, this is the hallmark of a democracy; the right to disagree. In equal measure those who accuse him of being decisive would find it hard to find fault in his message of unity and togetherness.

Leaders are not expected to be perfect and all that is asked of them is to be genuine and true. Obama has had his faults and short comings too; an economic expansion that ignored some segments, the inability to condemn the 65 civilians killed in drone strikes, the silence as Israel slaughtered 2000 Palestinians in 50 days (of those killed 550 were children), and the list can perhaps go on, but we cannot fault him for not trying to make a difference. Obama is often accused of sheltering the Muslims at the expense of the nation, a claim that needs to be examined at length; suffice to mention here there is nothing wrong when he says, “Do not blame Islam for the actions of a minority of so called Muslims.”

 Obama, it would seem, came to office with more expectations of him than any other president before him. I guess this comes with the burden of being ‘the first’ in any field. In a sense this may explain his constant effort to appease all sections of society and, in the eyes of some, falling short with each section. Yet when we look at legacies we need to stop counting trees and see the forest as a whole. We need to see not only what our part of the agenda was fulfilled but what the essence of the persons legacy means to us.

President Obama, along with his charming wife, Michelle, brought wholesomeness to the White House that it seriously lacked. The reaching out and the genuineness that flowed from the portals of that esteemed residence were not just photo opportunities but one could feel the warmth, concern and care for people was deep rooted. There was intellect in the Oval Office, there was humor, there empathy, perhaps the most important ingredient in a man’s arsenal of what we call Character.

Yes amongst us there will be some who will say Obama handed Trump the election victory by not delivering on his promises. First all as measures go he delivered on most of his promises in substantial strides of success. Secondly, the people elected Trump, go blame yourself for what you have put in the White House, no one put a gun to your head and said vote Trump. In so far as contrasts go for me the biggest thing I will miss is the eloquent speeches of President Obama, which will soon be replaced by the vocabulary lacking, wobbling utterances from a new President whose command of the English language is just about enough to get a Twitter message out.

On to Meryl Streep, an actress who oozes talent, and steeped as she may be in liberal politics, her remarks about a man of power mocking a disabled reporter had nothing to do with liberal politics; it was about decency, compassion and empathy. The fact that Mr. Trump’s only reaction was to call her an ‘over rated actress’ shows either man is living on Mars or is a total buffoon. You do not get over 127 acting awards and nominations in your career and remain ‘over rated’. Yes celebrities should speak of issues of social consciousness, they are icons of the young generation and if they do not have empathy for society then who will?

Sadly we must adjust to the new times where the new President will be twitting at all times of the night his outrage at reporters, world leaders and celebrities when they ‘dare’ to criticize him. What is bloodcurdling is that in a democracy to wear a skin that thin and then to sit in the White House as the most powerful man and tweet your temper out portends a mindset of immaturity or intolerance, or perhaps both. We must this week take time and listen to President Obama’s speech and Meryl Streep’s speech a few times and absorb the message of each word, each sentence a little more deeply. Sadly we know that such oratory will not will coming from the White House after January 20th, so Meryl its all up to you.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Trump Presidency: a possible perspective.

In but a few days Donald J Trump will put his hand on the Bible and take the oath to the highest office in the United States and become, undoubtedly, the most powerful man on the Earth. It would do no good to wonder how this all happened, and no it is not a dream you are in, this is reality. In time the election itself will be dissected and analysed in a million ways, and that is fine, but for the moment as history will etch the new Presidents name it will beg the question of what sort of Presidency should we expect from a man who evoked only two emotions; of die hard loyalty or pure hate. Indeed, you either loved the man and forgave him his sins with bucketfuls of sanitising votes or you loath the man and wonder how a man so low in character can occupy an office so high in expectations?

On the domestic side, and I am not expert on the pulse of the American people, not that many are these days, he will roll back on some of his earlier election promises. Here is the reason why? When he decided to run for office he had no choice but to make the most bizarre statements, (ala Mexicans, Muslims, China, whatever), as this gave him free air time. The media love a nasty story and he was out to make those nasty stories. With time as he emerged as the GOP candidate he did take a few mellowing steps to his earlier statements, but by no means humbling ones. So I believe while the tax cuts and perhaps suspending Obama care or modifying it will happen rather rapidly, the Mexican wall might be a subject which will be bounced about a lot but building the wall may not happen as easily not because of funding issues only, but become of the many government departments that have to get involved in the process. The promised trade wars may not break out immediately, but I do expect skirmishes as a trigger happy President may be itching for a fight far more than his advisors.

On the economic side as much as lower taxes are promised to expand the economy, its effects will come in slowly, prompting the government to go out and borrow more to fund not only the current expenditure but also the promised spending by Mr Trump. Will the trade off between lower taxes and higher growth happen within a reasonable time table? My honest opinion is that the lag time to get the tax benefit to work its way into the economy could take 3 odd years and that too if everything goes to plan. The joker in the pack will be the position on international trade only because in a codependent economic world slapping on import tariffs will mean higher consumer prices till domestic production of those goods catches up, and we assume the domestic production will be at the same price as in say China.

On the international front, politically speaking, the going is going to be tough. First of all Trumps position of NATO will need to be spelled out more clearly, and a failure to carry NATO partners with him might well mean the whole web of US security arrangements around the world will get untangled at worse or frayed at the edges at best. The power gap this will leave in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and perhaps the Far East will be filled by both Russia and China. The Middle East will be the region most effected given the current conflicts going on there and the need to keep the allies together to deal with the threat of ISIS and others. Yes Russia can deal with those threats too, but it will be at the expense of further destabilising the region and the not necessary in a manner that will help the cause of the US. The more delicate issue for Mr Trump will be how he handles Eastern Europe and specifically the Crimea situation. Given he has not made any substantive remarks on this during the election or since winning the election, I would assume the Crimea's annexation by the Russians will be sadly put aside and Putin and Trump try and work out a new working relationship.

From a more holistic perspective the Trump Presidency will have enough drama to keep us occupied and at times amused, yet it is clear the man does not have the class, the manners or the depth of intellect to catch out attention when he speaks. We may or may not agree with President Obama but we have to agree what a fine orator he is and when he spoke it was almost mesmerising to hear him hold the floor. This is a trait Mr Trump cannot buy, borrow and steal and we may have to be 'bigly' disappointed in this respect. The test for many of us will be to see if the man who ridiculed a disabled reporter can have the humility to change and more importantly to hear him apologise with sincerity within the first few days in office? Personally I doubt he can become humble, that bone just was not put in by the factory.

For America's sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world at large, I do pray Mr Trump will reach deep down within himself and see that he has to rise to the occasion and this position cannot be moulded to suit him, he has to fit the position. Cleaning swamps, building walls, dismantling alliances which are decades old, and redefining the world trade map are all fine and illustrious goals to some, but Presidencies are made by the legacy of values they create, the mantle of empathy and patience and maturity that come out of that office. This is the litmus test to which Mr Trump has to be measured as much as he is to be measured by the successes of jobs, GDP growth and America's standing in the world.