- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

As President Trump mounted the Speaker’s rostrum for the first time Tuesday night, he was facing a sharply divided Congress, a weak mandate, nationwide protests against his early policies and the lowest job-approval rating of any new president in 60 years.

In other words, he had ‘em right where he wanted ‘em.

If the nation has learned anything about Mr. Trump in the 20 months since he announced his candidacy, vanquished a field of experienced Republican rivals and beat the establishment-anointed Hillary Clinton, it’s that he thrives on being underestimated by adversaries, pundits and the media.

“Political scientists, pollsters, they got Michigan wrong, they got Pennsylvania wrong, they got Wisconsin wrong,” said Richard Hall, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “He’s done it his way so far.”

The speech to a joint session of Congress gave the president a chance to showcase his assertive leadership style in a call to collective action on tax cuts, Obamacare repeal and a military buildup, after 40 days that have been filled mostly with unilateral executive orders. The president has encountered staffing shortages and the resignation of his national security adviser, plus persistent questions about his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Tuesday the Russia allegations are “B.S.” and that everyone should “move on.”

Despite Mr. Trump’s job approval rating of only 42 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, there are signs of economic optimism, including stocks increasing nearly $3 trillion in value since Mr. Trump’s victory on Nov. 8.

Mr. Trump has more support among Republicans at this point in office — 88 percent in the Gallup poll — than any president other than George W. Bush. But the survey showed 38 percent support among independents and only 10 percent from Democrats.

“One of the reasons he has as much support as he has now, he’s really showing the American public that he’s decisive,” Mr. Hall said, citing the president’s early flurry of executive actions. “Those play to his strength.”

In Congress, where almost no one in either party expected Mr. Trump to win a year ago, the president still has a lot of persuading to do.

Many Democrats are taking pride in promising to resist nearly everything Mr. Trump attempts. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Maxine Waters of California, boycotted his speech. Other House Democratic women wore white to the address, the official color of suffragettes.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, belittled Mr. Trump’s speech before it started, saying it was “less important” than previous presidential addresses.

“This president has shown that there is a yawning gap between what he says and what his administration actually does for working Americans,” Mr. Schumer said. “He talks like a populist but governs like a pro-corporate, pro-elite, hard-right ideologue.”

A Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday found that 63 percent of those surveyed said it was better for the country and the Democratic Party for Democrats to work with Mr. Trump instead of countering him at every turn. Just 29 percent agreed that it’s better for the party and the nation for Democrats to oppose Mr. Trump “in every way possible.”

Thousands of Democratic protesters filled Republican town hall meetings during last week’s congressional recess, shouting down lawmakers in some cases in attempts to encourage resistance to Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda.

While many voters so far approve of Mr. Trump’s executive actions on immigration, rolling back government regulation and arm-twisting business leaders to create more jobs in the U.S., the president’s challenge of working with Congress has only begun.

“He must become an active participant in the legislative process,” Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, wrote in a New York Times Tuesday, calling the president “one of the most untraditional and unexpected presidents in American history.”

Mr. Hall said the president’s “governing style is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

“He really sees the success of his administration in playing hardball and taking a very strong position, asserting it in an aggressive way so he’s in a better bargaining position to compromise on something that he really wants,” he said. “That can work. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone with that style before.”

So far Mr. Trump gives himself an “A” for achievements. But two of the president’s biggest legislative goals, tax reform and repealing and replacing Obamacare, face divided Republicans in the House and Senate.

On health care GOP lawmakers have yet to agree on whether a replacement plan should subsidize insurance and, if so, to what extent. Nor have they agreed on how to pay for any eventual replacement.

Tax reform, which will come after tackling Obamacare, is complex and time-consuming.

“Doing a tax reform bill is extremely difficult [and] hugely complicated, even when you have a unified government,” Mr. Hall said. “Even just in the Republican Party, there’s probably as many ideas on what a simplified tax structure looks like as there are members of Congress.”

While voters await concrete results on those fronts, there are indications that they also remain worried about seeing solid improvement in the job market. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s “fiscal confidence index,” modeled after the Consumer Confidence Index, dropped to 60 this month, down from 67 in January (100 is neutral).

The group said Tuesday that its rating indicates “voters remain deeply concerned about America’s fiscal outlook and want policymakers to put the nation on a more sustainable fiscal path.”

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those in the survey agreed that the national debt should be one of the president and Congress‘ top three priorities.

“It’s clear that voters want the national debt to be part of his agenda,” said Michael A. Peterson, president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “A sustainable fiscal foundation is an essential component of economic growth. Voters understand that getting our fiscal house in order is a top priority if we are to achieve economic prosperity for all Americans.”

The president has said several times since his inauguration that he inherited a fiscal “mess” and that his administration must impose spending restraint in the face of a $20 trillion national debt.

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