Steve Rattner asked a sold-out crowd at the Grange Hall who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for someone else, and who didn’t vote at all.
“All right,” he said. “Now I’ll give you a reasonably balanced sense of what’s going on out there.”
Mr. Rattner is the former head of Obama’s Auto Task Force, a Wall Street financier, a contributing writer to New York Times, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” economic analyst. He’s had a place on-Island for the past 30 years, and through the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, he gave a talk last Tuesday about current events, the economy, and what’s going on in Washington.
“I’ll freely admit that I was among the many who didn’t think it would happen,” he said of last November’s election results. According to Mr. Rattner, President Trump’s victory has revealed how tough it is for people in areas of the country in terms of jobs, wages, substance abuse, addiction, and the rising mortality rate for white, middle-aged Americans. “These are the things we’ve learned since the election,” Mr. Rattner said. “Can we make progress?”
Mr. Rattner’s take on today was factual, loaded with years of firsthand experience, and believe it or not, threaded with optimism.
“This is not personal to Donald Trump,” Mr. Rattner said. “But we’ve never had a president with so little relevant experience in public service.” This is what he believes led to problems in the White House straight out of the gate: “I started in Washington in 1977, and this is not how I’ve seen any White House function.”
The president’s approval ratings are at a historically low 35 percent, according to Mr. Rattner: “From a purely political and operational point of view, you don’t have to be partisan to see it’s a weak start.”
President Trump’s first mistake, according to Mr. Rattner, was taking on a policy issue like healthcare as his first task. Obamacare was unpopular, and while the House of Representatives and Senate had previously voted to repeal it, there was no alternative presented that wouldn’t have cost millions of Americans their health insurance. Ironically enough, in trying to overhaul Obamacare, Republicans made it more popular than it has ever been. According to Mr. Rattner, as of April, a record high of 55 percent of Americans approve of the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Rattner’s verdict on President Trump’s foreign policy calls is more mixed. He believes the president’s decisions about Afghanistan came from a good place, and that he made a good speech to troops at Fort Myer, Va. Part of President Trump’s plan is to deploy more American troops to the region, and continue to train Afghan forces there, while convincing the Taliban they cannot win on the battlefield. Mr. Rattner also believes the president’s missile-strike response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack was tactical, and outshone his predecessor’s decisions in the region. He believes President Trump’s remarks on North Korea are temperamental, but his generals have a sensible policy. President Trump’s trade and immigration plans, however, have the potential to be completely disastrous, according to Mr. Rattner.
So what’s to come? September is a big month for politics, as the fiscal year comes to an end. Congress came back from an August recess with a full plate, and only 12 legislative days to make decisions. By Sept. 29, Congress needs to take action on the debt ceiling, and if it doesn’t, the government will run out of money and shut down. A government shutdown would have less drastic consequences than reaching the debt ceiling, which would be “truly disastrous for credit,” according to Mr. Rattner.
“We should all be optimistic,” Mr. Rattner said. “We may not like him, we may not want him, but we want our country to get through this and get to a better place.”
Recent changes at the top are promising, Mr. Rattner said. “At his most senior levels, there’s quite a strong team,” Mr. Rattner said of John Kelly as chief of staff, H.R. McMaster in the National Security Council, and Gary Cohn in the National Economic Council. “They lack a few things, but they’re all serious adults, clear thinkers, rational people who will at least try and get the president to do rational things.” According to Mr. Rattner, one thing Trump’s team lacks is legislative experience. “They don’t know how to pull the levels of political power in Washington to get things done,” he said. “The control levers are in safer hands, but I’m not sure we’ll make any real progress.”
Mr. Rattner closed his talk by bringing up chances of impeachment, saying nothing has come to light that would bring the president down.
“Realistically, my expectation is we’ll have him for four years; it’s hard to imagine he gets re-elected,” Mr. Rattner said. “It feels very much like the type of presidency that’s sleepwalking its way through four years, with hopefully brighter days ahead.”