The worry last week was that the Trump administration was ginning up fake intelligence about Iran blowing up oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to justify a war against Iran. Then, this week, President Donald Trump said the Iranian attacks aren’t a big deal and the strait isn’t particularly important to the United States.
The president might yet hit Iran, but his appetite for new military conflict in the Middle East is obviously limited.
The episode is another indication of the underlying modesty — not a word anyone ordinarily associates with Donald J. Trump — of the administration.
Subtract Trump’s taste for nonstop controversy and rhetorical brinkmanship, and you’re left with an incrementalist center-right government that has pursued an expansionary fiscal policy and avoided foreign war, for a period of peace and prosperity that — in any other universe — would be at the core of a stay-the-course reelection message.
Trump hasn’t spent political capital, as George W. Bush liked to put it, on a risky attempt to remake the Middle East or to reform the nation’s most popular entitlement program, Social Security. He didn’t, as Barack Obama did in his first two years, pass a sweeping domestic agenda toward the end of becoming a transformational president.
Trump largely spends political capital on tweets and other outrages, and much of his transformational energy is devoted to changing our norms for how a president speaks and behaves.
For a while, the Obama doctrine was, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” The Trump team has built out the doctrine to, “Privately consider and sometimes openly threaten stupid stuff, but at the end of the day, don’t do it (usually).”
The Mexico tariff threat was typical. If Trump had gone through with the steadily escalating tariffs, it would have been a blow to our own economy and that of an ally, while risking a political revolt in Congress. Instead, he got what might prove to be meaningful concessions from Mexico, and, even if he hadn’t, could have easily found some reason — not overly concerned with consistency — to delay or call off the tariffs.
The thing about a Trump threat is that he always controls whether he’s going to go through with it or not. He’s going to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, actually no, he’s not. He’s going to impose auto tariffs on Canada, well, not really. What he’s going to do is sign a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada that’s a somewhat altered version of NAFTA and urge Congress to pass it.
Allies might be understandably appalled (or at times alarmed) by his habit of berating them and squeezing them for concessions, but the alliance system, a product of deeper forces than the persona of any one president, remains intact.
His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un was certainly high stakes and ill-advised, but it was only a more theatrical version of the long-standing bipartisan policy of failing to get Kim to give up his nuclear program, because that is very hard, verging on the impossible.
In the Middle East, Trump accelerated an anti-ISIS campaign that he inherited and destroyed the caliphate, announced a withdrawal from Syria that he didn’t fully follow through on, and kept troops in Afghanistan. Steady as she goes.
He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a notable symbolic change, but worries that it makes a peace process impossible are overblown, since there hasn’t been any peace process to speak of for a long time.
Pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord is a much bigger deal, and given that it’s not entirely clear how the administration imagines resolving the crisis, genuinely a shot in the dark (although Trump says he wants to talk and reportedly wants to tamp down bellicose rhetoric from his team).
Another gamble is the trade war with China, a truly significant departure from the old bipartisan consensus, yet even here, Trump presumably has the off-ramp of a fig-leaf deal should he decide that he wants to take it.
At home, in terms of the economy, everything (except for the tariffs) has been geared to preserving and boosting the recovery, from the tax cuts, to the deregulation, to the lack of interest in cutting spending, to Trump’s jaw-boning of the Federal Reserve to keep rates low.
The action on immigration is heavily focused on the border, with the goal of diminishing a growing crisis rather than fashioning a transformation in immigration enforcement that is currently beyond the administration’s reach.
Trump has kept the Senate occupied with a steady diet of judicial nominations approved by the conservative legal establishment.
Any political fence-setter inclined to consider this a solid record of accomplishment has the competing programming to consider of Trump’s constant tweeting and lurid, yet meaningless controversies. The foreign interference back-and-forth with George Stephanopoulos that dominated the news cycle over the past few days was a classic example. Even if Trump had stuck with his initial answer that he’d accept such assistance, there was no way anyone in his campaign would really take a meeting with representatives of a foreign power, after seeing what Don Jr. went through during the last couple of years of investigation. It was yet another controversy where the heat was inversely related to the real-world impact.
Given the choice, you’d probably prefer that people believed that your administration was cautious and incremental, while it undertook far-reaching changes, rather than believe it’s on the verge of careening out of control, while pursuing a fairly reasonable path.
The careening out of control has seemed a real possibility at times, of course. Trump successfully navigated the Mueller investigation in part because he was talked out of his worst ideas or ignored when he schemed to act on them. When he’s gotten his way on risky gambits, like the government shutdown or the zero-tolerance policy at the border, it’s ended in tears.
At some point, he might get called on one of his threats in a way that corners him and limits him to undesirable options. The chaos of his governing style and personnel policy could always catch up to him. And he hasn’t yet been tested with a serious crisis forced on him by events, the way other presidents have.
Any of this could change his governing record in a hurry. For now, he can plausibly make a reelection pitch that, despite what you might have heard or gathered from his own provocations, he’s been a steward of a country enjoying markedly good times.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine