1. Do the multiple power centers and presence of so many people new to government create a chaotic, dysfunctional White House? To be fair, other presidents have been plagued with staff problems, fired people (even the chief of staff), gone back to the drawing board, and restaffed and reorganized the White House. A year from now, in all likelihood there will be some new faces, or even an entirely new org chart. What will be critical for Trump is to minimize the chaos at the start of his tenure, when he has the greatest chance to accomplish his aims. If confusion, miscommunication, backbiting and gridlock prevent him from delivering a clear message, prioritizing his objectives and pushing through his agenda, his presidency won’t get off the ground.
2. Do Trump’s ethical outrages swamp his presidency? Predictably, Republicans are declining to challenge Trump on his phony “blind trust” and refusal to sell assets. Democrats rightfully may object to his snubbing of the emoluments clause — or even file articles of impeachment — but the test will come when and if the public sees real instances of pay-to-play, self-enrichment or foreign-influence peddling. Should more come to light about his connection to Russia, Trump may spend the rest of his term under a cloud of intrigue and suspicion.
3. Will Trump get off his Vladimir Putin obsession? In confirmation hearings this week his nominees for State, Defense and the CIA all supported the intelligence finding that Russia was behind the election hacks and disinformation campaign; all spoke highly of the intelligence agency; all identified Russia as an adversary; all refused to accept Russian occupation of Georgia and Ukraine; and all refused to excuse Putin’s egregious human rights record. In the face of that, and with widespread worry that Putin really does have his hooks into Trump, he may choose to defy expectations and chart a much tougher course on Russia policy than his predecessor. Then again, he may do real damage to the NATO alliance, disregard American values, ignore human rights atrocities and allow Russia to obtain unprecedented influence in the Middle East. If he chooses to, he will be isolated from his own national security team, both parties in Congress and voters, who will regard Putin as a malignant character.
4. How does he escape the Obamacare box? If Republicans repeal major elements of Obamacare, leave the system hanging by a thread, panic its beneficiaries and incur the wrath of voters, they may blow their chance to make good on their promise to “repeal and replace.” Whether Trump sticks with Republicans in Congress as finger-pointing and criticism rain down on Americans remains an open question. We do know that if it is a question of loyalty to Republicans and ego-gratification, then Congress doesn’t stand a chance.
5. Can Trump use Democrats to whipsaw his own party? Trump obviously cares much more about getting a deal to crow about than advancing any policy objectives. That opens up the possibility of all sorts of horse-trading with Democrats. Pick an older, more moderate Supreme Court justice, and Dems will vote for his infrastructure bill. Why not? Include coverage for abortion and Medicaid expansion to get Trumpcare. Why not? The combinations are endless. If Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plays his cards right, he could wind up with more than the Republicans get.
6. How does Trump respond to his first foreign policy crisis? If Trump goes on Twitter rants, makes rash ultimatums, appears indecisive or backtracks on American commitments, he will damage his standing abroad and at home. Alternatively, if he projects calm, seriousness and perseverance, he could re-calibrate America’s image in the world, signaling that the Obama era is over.
7. Does the media stand tall? If legitimate news organizations are dogged and abide by ethical standards, refuse to give Trump a club to hit them with or a free pass to escape accountability, and refuse to be intimidated, Trump may after a few years begin to wilt under pressure (or, more likely, explode in frustration). In that regard it remains to be seen whether campaign flacks prepared to say anything (and entirely unconcerned with objective reality) will serve the president well in the White House.
8. How does Trump handle setbacks? Every president loses some — bills that fail, nominees who don’t get confirmed, etc. There will be times when staff or Congress or courts tell him “no.” As a candidate he could indulge in public tantrums; as president he cannot. The ability to maintain one’s equilibrium and restraint to avoid burning bridges with those whose help you will need later are keys to a successful presidency. Trump doesn’t take defeat well — and his tendency to blame others and lash out at underlings may work against him in the public sector.
9. Can he be a mourner in chief? Like it or not, the president has become a source of empathy and reassurance in times of tragedy. Trump cares little for others’ feelings — if he even recognizes they have them. As a candidate he could holler “I was right!” when a terrorist attack like Orlando happened. As president, that reaction will be disastrous. On a more personal level, can he comfort grief-stricken parents or calm survivors after a natural disaster?
10. Will Trump learn to stop dividing Americans? Trump won by pitting working-class whites against immigrants and “elites.” His rhetoric served to inflame passions after police shootings. He enters office with one of the worst approval ratings in history. Unless he can unite rather than subdivide and inspire rather than berate, his approval will sink, he’ll lose his political mojo and his party will suffer in the midterms.