George Friedman points out new US President Donald Trump faces a battle to implement his agenda due to his low approval ratings & the potential use of filibusters

George Friedman points out new US President Donald Trump faces a battle to implement his agenda due to his low approval ratings & the potential use of filibusters

By George Friedman* 

Last Friday, Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. For Trump, as with every president before him, everything he said until that point consisted of promises. He had no power, so the only thing that could be expected of him was his analysis of what is wrong with the country, and what he would do to solve it. 

On Friday, the question shifted from what he will do, to what he is doing. Presidents don’t stop promising, but the promises become more hollow over time if they are not matched by some degree of achievement. 

The President’s weak position 

The American presidency is a paradox.

It is the most noted position in the world, imbued by observers with all the power inherent to the world’s most powerful country. Everyone is now trying to understand what Trump intends to do. 

At the same time, the American president is among the weakest institutional leaders in Euro-American civilization. He can do some things unilaterally, particularly in foreign policy, but Congress can block them. He can do some things by executive order, but the Supreme Court can overrule them. He can pass certain programs that require cooperation from states, but the states can refuse to cooperate. At every step, as the founders intended, his ability to act unilaterally is severely limited. The difference between how presidential power appears and how it is applied in reality is enormous. 

So now, the most important question is not, what does Trump intend to do… but instead, what will Congress do? Both chambers have Republican majorities. Republican control of the House of Representatives is overwhelming. Republican control of the Senate, though, is not.

The Senate has 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and two independents who are likely to vote with the Democrats. This essentially gives the Republicans a four-vote majority. Because the vice president would be the deciding vote in a tie… and because he is a Republican, three Republicans would have to switch sides to defeat any legislation. 

Under the Constitution, senators are not elected to rubber-stamp the president. They are elected to represent their sovereign states. So this battleground will not be between Republicans and Democrats. Nor will it be between both chambers. The real battle will be among Senate Republicans.

Three defections make it impossible to pass any proposed legislation. As such, any Republican senator who can position himself as a potential defector will be able to negotiate for the president’s support on any number of issues. The president will either be forced to compromise or risk having the legislation defeated.

Approval ratings are key 

Senators are not free actors. They need to be re-elected. Their calculation on whether to oppose a Republican president will depend heavily (if not entirely) on whether the president will help or hurt them in their re-election bids. That depends on the president’s approval ratings, particularly in the senators’ home states. 

According to a Fox News poll taken just before Inauguration Day, 37% of those polled approved of Trump’s performance and 54% did not. And therein lies Trump’s problem and battleground. 

President George W. Bush, President Richard Nixon, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and President Harry S. Truman all had approval ratings around 37% toward the end of their terms. This number is normal for a failed or worn-out presidency. 

I know of no president in the 20th century who began his term this way. Each party historically commands about 40% support among voters. When a president falls below 40%, he is actually losing support from his own party. It is normally hard to come back from that… and it usually takes years to get to that low level. 

This poses a problem for Trump’s administration. With these numbers, it is possible that more than three Republican senators could decide that rigid support for the president might cost them their political lives. 

Trump’s approval ratings are unlikely to fall below 37%, but to be effective, he can’t stay at that level. Republican senators will look at the president’s negative ratings in their states and calculate whether supporting his programs might lock 50% of voters against them. It is important to recall that constitutionally, a senator is supposed to serve the people of his state, not the president. 

Because public support wanes over the course of a presidency (though it sometimes blooms with nostalgia later in his term), it is essential to start a term with as much support as possible. Therefore, if Trump wants to get controversial bills passed, he must build his popularity quickly. His staff, particularly the vice president, will be examining every Republican senator who is up for re-election in 2018 to determine how to help sway their states’ voters. Trump’s fear will be that he will alienate his core while failing to make inroads with his enemies. 

The other roadblock 

The final point to consider is, of course, the use of filibusters. This is a deep tradition in the Senate, and it has served as another check on power that the founders would have been proud of. Any senator may filibuster a bill, and if a whole party does it, the filibuster can only be stopped by getting 60 votes in favor or by letting the senators go on until they drop. 

If the latter happens, the Democrats in the Senate would effectively be able to block Trump’s entire agenda. Alternatively, Trump would need the support of eight Democrats to get 60 votes to end a filibuster. That isn’t likely to happen. 

The president can achieve some things with an executive order, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t step in. But broader policies like infrastructure development won’t get passed without congressional support. 

That battleground will be within the Republican Party in the Senate. The result will depend on whether Trump’s approval ratings increase above 37%. Just holding there won’t do it, as that number has been “Death Valley” for other presidencies… although we have no way to benchmark a presidency that starts at this level.


*George Friedman is editor of This Week in Geopolitics at Mauldin Economics. This article first appeared here and is used with permission.

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great piece, thanks

Any attempt to block Trump will just fuel the anti establishment in the US even more.
Trump in my opinion is not a Republican or Democrat but used what he could to get power.

Blocking Trump might fuel the anti establishment's rhetoric, but it certainly won't add numbers to it and therefore won't result in things getting easier for Trump. My guess is that Trump will be ineffective with respect to domestic policy and self (US)-destructive with respect to foreign policy. Once Trump fails to get anything done his approval ratings will drop even lower. But I definitely agree with your second comment.

Trump appears to be doing things at a rapid clip if you follow all the media hype on BBC , CNBC , FOX , Al Jazeera , AFP , DPA , Reuters and Bloombergs.

Within just 72 hours of his inauguration he is signing stuff, saying stuff and seems to be doing stuff, just like he said he would do

His cabinet seems to be sorted , he has invited Theresa May and Benjaman Netanyahu to visit him , he plans to meet Putin in Iceland , he is going to tour the Mexican Border to get a first hand look at what needs to be done there

And its all very Trumpesque .......... like, for example , his stated plan to use US -made Pipes rather than imported steel pipes for the oil pipeline (to get America back to work)

Everyone seems to be reporting his every breath .

So far so good .............. the World has not ended

The world may not have ended but we're certainly worried. Though I do feel happier about being in a Nuclear free zone, this is one thing that makes me want to stay in NZ.

The BBC have been running quite a few series on what could result from having an extremist President.
Here's an excellent recent radio documentary from The Inquiry: How do You Launch a Nuclear Missile?

NZ can be as NUCLEAR free as it likes.
It's not going to be able to stop incoming from China or North Korea.
Keep building the bunker.

Actually if you listen to that Inquiry documentary China is the least likely to retaliate over a Nuclear war. Unfortunately the US has a hair trigger system.

Seeing what happens on the island building issues in the South China seas will be interesting to say the least as Trump has just reiterated that they will be denied access to existing islands and prevented from building more.

The real danger in my view is an unexpected left field incident.
Chinese fighter inadvertently collides with / mechanical failure of a P3 which has to land ASAP.
US says release or else
China says get stuffed and it's all on !

Very easy to construct an incident when you have two very aggressive parties but one where face is so important and China will simply not back down

Just remember a similar scenario has already occurred and they never gave the plane back.

Can't see the Donald letting that happen.

Could get real messy - real quick.

They did give the plane back - they just didn't allow it to be flown away. It was disassembled in placed in a huge cargo transport plane.

If the Congress has so much power, why has Trump not been impeached already?For gross brazen lies as an inaugurated President, to the American People.

Because that would open all of congress up to the same fate.

Without sin and casting the first stone and all that.

Their is still a bit of time for that, before he bails out of the presidency because of heel spurs or something.

Deny-ability is Trumps method. Keep anyone on the dark, who does not fit in with HIS thinking. His beliefs are all that matters....and how strange and unbelievable they are does not matter. Trump towers above all else....look at me, I am the answer..not the problem. (Yeah right).

Mr Trump was voted in. By the people. So yes, his beliefs do matter.
It is called democracy.

"It's Democracy Jim; but not as we know it"

A lot of Americans are now trying to leave the US due to Trump most of them moving to Canada.

BBC article: When they said they'd leave the country if Trump became US President, they weren't kidding.

Early days yet. Only figures are internet traffic numbers. We will have to wait and see what numbers of people actually follow through and leave.