President Trump is off to the rockiest start of any modern president. He faces remarkably well-organized opposition from liberal activists, who refuse to accept the outcome of the election, but his biggest problems are bad management, staffing and questionable strategic decisions at the White House.
Mr. Trump appears insensitive to the fact that running the government is quite different than a string of real estate holdings. His Manhattan office buildings and Scottish golf resort are largely independent businesses whereas in government, seemingly focused initiatives can have terribly far-reaching consequences.
For example, his executive order to suspend immigration from seven Middle Eastern and African countries had profound implications for high-tech employers, legal immigrants and allies throughout the region and Europe.
No doubt Mr. Trump was elected to bring much needed change to U.S. economic and security policies, and the executive branch has the capacity to help him craft initiatives that accomplish his goals and mitigate economic, political and foreign policy fallout. However, the executive order on immigration was not adequately vetted, faced unforeseen opposition and resulted in fatal legal challenges for two important sets of reason that repeat elsewhere.
He has set up competing power centers with operatives from the campaign — White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and Senior Adviser Stephen Miller — vying for influence with more seasoned political hands — Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. And he appears to rely too much on the former, who favor impulsive and disruptive tactics, to inform his decisions, when they simply are not qualified by adequate expertise and temperament for their roles. If they were capable, the executive order on immigration would have not been such an unmitigated disaster.
More broadly, the White House staff and Cabinet appointments sorely lack economic and domestic and foreign policy technical expertise, and a sense is emerging that the White House is not competent or sensitive to the complexity of effective decision-making.
For example, much is wrong with our tax systems and trade agreements. However, Mr. Trump has yet to articulate well-reasoned goals for personal and corporate tax reform. He doesn’t have anyone in his inner circle who knows how to evaluate competing reform ideas for their impacts on investment and growth or to score their consequences for revenues and budget deficits. And he has no one qualified to hire people to perform those tasks or effectively evaluate that work.
U.S. trade agreements are the product of carefully calibrated concessions between Washington and foreign governments and among competing domestic interest groups, not just regarding tariffs but also domestic regulatory policies affecting market access — for example, agricultural support programs, enforcement of patents and professional licensing.
When Mr. Trump’s trade policy team recently visited leaders on Capitol Hill, it was unprepared to credibly discuss the consequences of an import tariff to leverage better market access in China for U.S. grain exports or high-tech investments there. Mr. Trump’s top trade thinkers, Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, may share his absolute displeasure with multilateral agreements like the now jettisoned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but they offer no coherent explanation of how as many as 121 bilateral agreements among its 12 participants could yield non-conflicting outcomes or net benefits overall.
Neither the White House staff nor his new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seem able to explain how this administration will orchestrate a coherent policy with Japan, Vietnam and others to counter both Chinese mercantilism and adventurism in the South and East China Seas after Mr. Trump killed the TPP.
The best thing Mr. Trump could do would be to move his former campaign advisers to political assignments — preferably projects off-site at the Republican National Committee — and put Messrs. Pence and Priebus in charge of running the White House with the help of truly competent economists and domestic and foreign policy experts at the National Economic and Security Councils.
Then he should create task forces headed by qualified White House operatives and top Cabinet department officials to lead on specific issues. Regarding these, Mr. Ross’ financial and business experience better lend to the challenges of financing major infrastructure projects than trade negotiations with Mexico and China, which would be better assigned to the well-experienced U.S. Trade Representative-designate Robert Lighthizer.
Credible, well-reasoned proposals, and carefully orchestrated diplomacy with Congress and foreign leaders will win results and quiet critics — or at least minimize the latter’s influence with voters — much more that impulsive actions, loud rhetoric and calamitous confrontations in the courts and international forums.
• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.