Washington, United States | AFP | Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office on Friday evening in an unfamiliar position — having to own failure.
His health care reform, his very first significant legislative proposal, had fallen at the first hurdle in a friendly Congress.
For sure, the 70-year-old businessman had faltered before — from bankrupt casinos to shuttered hotels. But until now bravado was enough to keep his brand intact, and carry him all the way to the White House.
Now — in the fiercest spotlight in the world, as president of the United States — there was nowhere to hide.
Fittingly perhaps, Trump addressed his failure from behind a desk in the Oval Office.
It was in that same spot that Harry Truman kept a sign that encapsulated all the pressures and accountability of an imperial presidency: “The buck stops here.”
Trump was not ready to take quite that much ownership, although he did profess to be “a little surprised” by the plan’s failure. We got close, he said, as if it mattered.
But Trump offered surprisingly little criticism for his brothers-in-arms. That may come when the dust falls.
His criticism of the Democrats — none of whom were ever going to vote for a bill that dismantled Barack Obama’s signature health reform — felt almost formulaic.
At the end of the day Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, they should not have needed Democratic votes.
There was no avoiding it: the self-professed “closer” had struck out.
“Trump, it turns out, is not actually able to put together any deal that he wants,” wrote Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, on CNN.com.
“In this case, he was the loser.”
– ‘He blinked. Bigly ‘ –
That leaves Trump, after just two months in office, facing a dilemma that may define the rest of his presidency: can he continue with the bareknuckle, alpha male approach that brought him to the summit of global politics.
His erratic tweets have already called his credibility into doubt, most seriously when he accused his predecessor Obama — without proof — of wiretapping his phones.
His approach to policymaking — all about speed, with little consultation — has also shown its limits as his order to curb immigration from some Muslim-majority nations was twice frozen by the courts.
Some lessons from the health care debate offer ominous signs.
Amid threats of retribution and orders to “march or die,” more than two dozen Republicans still refused to back what Trump touted as the “greatest” health care plan.
“Donald Trump played a game of chicken with House Republicans. Then he blinked. Bigly,” headlined the Washington Post’s editorial on the health care debacle.
Trump’s bluff can be called, after all, and many Republicans who supported him only reluctantly, may now smell blood.
Not to mention foreign leaders like those in North Korea, China, Russia or Iran, who owe him no allegiance and are playing a higher stakes geopolitical game.
And Trump is unlikely to get any relief from Democrats, loath to back a president mired in scandal over his team’s links to Russia, even if they backed his proposals.
It is unclear whether the septuagenarian could change if he wanted to.
Domestic allies and friendly diplomats report that in private Trump shows little mastery of the details needed to push policy forward.
In one recent discussion, an ally painstakingly outlined an urgent problem item-by-item, only for Trump to promptly change the subject.
Even aides admit Trump showed more interest in making the health care sale than in what he was selling.
– Learning on the job –
When it comes to substance, the ill-fated health care bill put contradictions between free market Republicans and the economic populism embodied by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon into sharp relief.
The bill, if successful, would have left millions of the Americans who voted for Trump without coverage, leaving some inside the White House to wish it dead.
The ideological gap within the Republican party, masked by years united in opposition, was just too big to span.
And bridging that divide will prove just as difficult when it comes to choosing between paying for programs for the poor and tax cuts for companies and the wealthy.
After just over 60 days in office, Trump is in many ways still learning on the job.
He could yet steady the ship: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton saw similar turbulent starts before shuffling staff and buckling down.
But that, too, would require a change of tack for a leader until now quick to deflect responsibility for his setbacks: blaming the “dishonest” media, intelligence leakers within the government, or biased judges.
“Now, in the aftermath of his failure on health care, it is he who is not standing on stable ground,” wrote Zeliger. “The truth is that he might just have no one to blame but himself.”