Written by Marcin Grajewski,
American society and politicians may be more polarised than ever, the new President, Donald Trump may be mercurial and unpopular, but the American economy looks poised for accelerated growth, the foundations of American foreign and defence policy are solid, and the new administration is becoming increasingly professional, according to analysts and politicians speaking at a conference organised by the European Parliamentary Research Service. After some initial setbacks and snubs, the Trump administration would like to mend fences with the European Union, although there will be areas of dispute, such as trade or climate change, they said, playing down fears that President Trump will seek to dismantle global economic and security system.
The event, entitled ’US politics today: Understanding recent dynamics’, featured fresh findings on US public opinion, with experts analysing how these would help to shape policies in Washington DC. The conference brought more than 100 MEPs, diplomats, officials, students and others to the European Parliament’s Library Room on 23 March 2017.
Republican President Trump, a former business tycoon and television celebrity, known for his unorthodox communication skills, won the Presidency on a wave of growing distrust towards elites, promising to clean up the political establishment in Washington DC, stop illegal immigration, put the American interest first in foreign policies, and reinvigorate the economy through spending on infrastructure, analysts said. But more a month into his presidency, his popularity rates have tumbled and he has provoked acrimonious emotions in a society that is already deeply divided into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and by attitudes towards globalisation and family values.
‘The election was a tipping point. Many people said enough: the elites do not get it, they do not understand us, they do not solve our problems,’ said Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO, now Executive Director at the McCain Institute, linked to Republican Senator John McCain.
In February 2017, President Trump was disapproved by 56 % of Americans and approved by 39 %, the worst score in generations, said Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes at polling organisation Pew Research Center, citing a recent Pew survey. The corresponding figures for President Barrack Obama in 2009 were 17 % and 64 %.
‘There are huge differences in perceptions of the same man, although more people are disappointed than approve,’ said Stokes. For example, 42 % of Republican supporters believe President Trump respects US democratic institutions and traditions ‘a great deal’, compared with 2 % for Democrats. About 5 % of Republicans think he has no such respect at all, compared with 54 % for the Democrats.
The Pew poll also found that 54 % of the electorate believe President Trump ‘is able to get things done’, 34 % that he is a good communicator, 36 % that he is trustworthy and well-informed. Obama scored 70 %, 92 % and 76 % respectively in 2009.
On a more positive note, 60 % think President Trump will work well with Congress and 52 % that he will manage the executive branch effectively.
Volker said two trends characterised the early months of Trump’s presidency. ‘One is the continuation of the electoral campaign to change everything, keep communication with the voters, not to be afraid to shake things up, and to make quick decisions. Another is a growing professionalisation in managing the administration.’
He stressed President Trump had appointed ‘a very strong team in the area of security and defence’, although its early blunder included an initial decision by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to skip a meeting of foreign ministers of NATO member states. The meeting has been rescheduled and Tillerson now plans to attend.
Analysts stressed that US officials had reassured NATO and the European Union about importance that the new administration attaches to transatlantic relations. This followed President Trump’s early statements that created doubts in Europe about his intentions.
‘It was good to hear reassurances, but it would be better if they were not needed,’ commented Marietje Schaake, (ALDE, the Netherlands), Vice-Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the United States.
Stokes noted that decisions related to trade had been among the first taken by President Trump, even though trade issues ranked relatively low among Americans’ priorities. Dealing with global trade issues was a priority for only 40 %, compared with 76 % in favour of defence against terrorism. The poll also found that the Islamist militant group ISIS was considered to be the biggest threat for the US, by 79 %, followed by cyber-attacks, by 71 %.
Dealing with climate change was seen as a priority only by 38 %, helping to stoke fears that the Trump’s administration will hamper global efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. However, Kristine Berzina, Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, noted that the US would not become a major CO2 polluter, despite early decisions to open up the energy sector to more investment. ‘Fears in Europe are unwarranted. Will coal mines start working robustly? Unlikely. Gas is cheaper,’ she said. She added it was unclear if Washington would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on combatting climate change.
The analysts concluded that the poll painted a complex picture of the American society and the nascent presidency. ‘The data shows we are not entirely crazy, we may be only partially crazy,’ concluded Volker.