What if our president was a ham sandwich?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, December 17, 2017)

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

While browsing postings on Whisper, I came across a meme contrasting President Donald Trump to a ham sandwich.

For some of us, just saying ‘ham sandwich’ invites a grin.

‘Ham sandwich’ references have a serious origin, however. During a 1985 newspaper interview, former chief judge of New York state, Sol Wachtler, wanting to highlight the disproportionate influence district attorneys had over grand juries, suggested DAs could get them “to indict a ham sandwich.”

The ‘ham sandwich’ meme on Whisper wasn’t particularly clever, but it does suggest an intriguing question. Would this country be just as well off (or even better off) if we replaced our president with a ham sandwich?

Isn’t Donald Trump living proof of the position’s substantive irrelevance in the current era?

Just look at this president’s accomplishments and how little he was involved in achieving them.

In just under one year of the Trump administration…

  • Our economy is booming and shows no sign of slowing down. Employment is up. Wages are up.
  • A neoconservative created nightmare in Syria (thank you George W., Obama, Clinton and Kerry) has stabilized and ISIS is no longer a territory controlling power in Syria or Iraq.
  • And, after over 20 years of pushing the North Korea nuclear weapons and ballistic missile problem down the road, under the leadership of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. has shepherded through the UN Security Council the most significant economic sanctions in a generation against North Korea.

And was Donald Trump critical to any of these results?

His election victory meant the Republicans would again make the federal administrative rules, regulations, procedures, orders, and decisions. The importance of judicial appointments cannot be underestimated either.

But everything done by this administration so far is consistent with post-Reagan Republican orthodoxy: cut regulations, appoint conservative (pro-business) judges, and defer to the generals on military policy. Donald Trump has introduced no new thinking on any of these policies.

Donald Trump’s core campaign promises were to build a wall and impose a travel ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Neither is going to happen soon, and probably never.

The policies implemented in the first year of Trump’s administration were pre-packaged and ready for the president’s signature soon after Day 1.

A ham sandwich wouldn’t have us on the brink of war with North Korea, would it?

North Korea’s provocative missile tests are the proximal cause of the current North Korean crisis, not Donald Trump; but the crisis’ urgency has been amplified through a series of impulsive and reckless Trump tweets. At least, Trump should be credited with refusing to punt on this external threat (as did previous administrations) and for getting the Chinese and UN’s career diplomats off their butts and making substantive decisions on North Korea again.

But, again, can Donald Trump take credit for whatever outcome is achieved on North Korea? Frankly, I don’t think Trump could pick out North Korea on a map if you narrowed it down for him to the Korean peninsula.

As the North Korea situation demonstrates, Trump is not as risk averse as past presidents. Barack Obama was painfully so, particularly on foreign policy.

The possible outcomes on North Korea now range from: an all-out U.S.-led invasion that could conceivably include a nuclear weapon detonation in a major city (Seoul being the most likely target) or North Korea returning to the negotiating table and agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in exchange for economic assistance and regime security guarantees.

Donald Trump’s lack of competence on everything limits his impact

Love him or hate him, most agree Donald Trump is not a normal president. He doesn’t acquit himself they way we’ve come to expect from presidents.

That may be a positive in some instances. Often through late night tweets, Trump shapes the daily news cycle like no president before him. But on specifics, forget about it. As former McCain senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt once said when comparing Trump to former VP candidate Sarah Palin on their campaign debate performances: “She (Sarah Palin) was monumentally more fluent and prepared. She looked like Henry Kissinger compared to him.”

Furthermore, now in office, Trump has shown little capacity to learn public policy’s complexities to an extent necessary to influence support for his legislative agenda. Columnist George Will describes Trump as someone who “doesn’t know what it is to know.”

Yes, a major tax bill is about to be passed; but, by all accounts, the president has shown a limited understanding of tax or economic policy and no gift for persuading undecided legislators to support the bill.

Gary Cohn, the Trump administration’s chief economic adviser, may have faked a bad phone connection just to get Trump off a conference call with moderate Democrats being courted by Republicans to work on the tax bill. That account is disputed by the White House; but, sadly, there many other instances where Trump’s hostile relationship with facts and knowledge has been exposed.

Generally, cutting taxes, even if the bulk of the benefit may go to the wealthiest Americans, should be an easy sell to the American people.

But not for Trump.

A significant majority of Americans oppose the Republican tax bill. A recent Harvard CAPS-Harris survey found that 64 percent of respondents oppose the bill, while only 36 percent support it.

A ham sandwich would do no worse selling this tax bill.

Yet, there are things a ham sandwich could never accomplish as president, who are not just partisan political leaders pushing their legislative and national priorities. Since George Washington, who chose country over faction when he decided not to seek a third presidential term, the office has come to speak for the nation’s moral center of gravity. ‘Normal’ presidents are more than political leaders.

The seminal moment in the rise of the presidency as the nation’s moral compass was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863, delivered in the midst of one of the Civil War’s darkest moments.

Barbara Perry, a presidential historian in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, calls the Gettysburg Address “the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming — but also uplifting and inspirational.”

Other presidential moments have reaffirmed the presidency’s healing role.

In the aftermath of 9-11, President George W. Bush stood with Islamic leaders at the Islamic Center of Washington to deliver words meant to unite a country and protect its most vulnerable citizens:

“Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes,” Bush said. “Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know.”

Though simple words, they exemplify why some have suggested presidents are our ‘pastors in chief.

Regardless if that’s true, we do look to our presidents in times of national crisis for comfort, inspiration and guidance.

Which is why President Trump’s remarks after last August’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia fell short of the standard set by previous presidents.

When asked by a journalist about the violence, which included the death of a young woman by a car-driving white supremacist protesting the removal of a General Stonewall Jackson statue, Trump said: “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.  And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.  You had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”

In all seriousness, a ham sandwich would have been more soothing.

Perhaps, ironically, Iowa’s conservative evangelical community in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses may have unofficially ended the presidency’s role as a moral authority. In that caucus, Iowa’s evangelical voters split their votes between Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Trump. The election ended for many evangelicals the use of Biblical competency tests for selecting presidents. In their new reality, presidents are just powerful vessels (i.e., tools, if you prefer) leveraged to achieve partisan goals. Its all about politics now.

“I don’t give support simply by quoting the Bible. I want to see it lived out in the policy,” said John Lee, an influential Iowa pastor, prior to the 2016 Iowa caucuses. “I’m not electing a pastor in chief. I’m electing a commander in chief.”

A Republican voter base that had in previous Iowa caucuses supported the overtly Christian-centered candidacies of Pat Robertson (2nd place in 1988, behind an Iowa-favorite, Bob Dole), Mike Huckabee (1st in 2008), and Rick Santorum (1st in 2012), was now supporting a candidate whose favorite Bible verse,  Exodus 21:22-25, known for its “eye-for-an-eye” passage, was singled out and repudiated by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount speech.

Well, maybe Trump isn’t walking in Jesus’ steps, but at least he’s consistent with Moses, right? Well, actually no. What should be no surprise by now, Trump completely misunderstands the meaning behind the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ passage.

According to Orthodox Rabbinic tradition, the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ passage “never intended to mandate physical punishment in personal injury cases” and instead “means the perpetrator must pay the monetary value commensurate with the victim’s injury.”

Though über Christian Ted Cruz actually won the 2016 Iowa Republican caucus, Trump’s close second place finish set the stage for his surprising strength among white evangelicals in other primaries and caucuses.

In the general election, four-out-of-five white evangelical Christians voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton.

We get it. Donald Trump is not the uniter in chief in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama or George W. Bush, or pretty much any other U.S. President (except William Henry Harrison, who served for 32 days as president and spent most of it on his death bed, offering him little opportunity for comforting others).

Maybe there are other things a president does besides knowing stuff, making decisions, persuading others, and uniting a country?

“Over-turning the norms of American politics was a (Trump) campaign promise,” conservative columnist George Will recently noted.

In that effort, Trump has emphatically succeeded.

He is breaking most all of the rules.

Where presidents once carefully measured and crafted their words so as to minimize misinterpretations of their intent, now we have President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults like two schoolyard bullies. After Kim called Trump a “dotard” for saying during his UN speech that the “U.S. would totally destroy North Korea” if it developed an nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic,” Trump responded with a tweet (of course).

Kim, who serves his own internal audience by keeping this public pissing match alive, responded by calling Trump “old,” which, of course, inspired another Twitter reply from Trump:

In case you aren’t sure, this is not a new form of diplomacy. These are the blustery rants of two jejune adults who lack significant oversight from experienced advisers.

It is safe to say a ham sandwich would not have engaged in this type of banter with the leader of hostile nuclear power.

Are we better off for this banter? We will see.

Everything is Awesome…What could go wrong?

Objectively, it is difficult to deny the success of the Trump administration so far, despite what we are told by a daily blizzard of anti-Trump news from the major news organizations.

As George Carlin might say, the country is doing fine…its the politicians and the journalists that are f*ucked up.

That is probably closer to the truth than what you see on CNN or MSNBC or read in The New York Times. Trump  is wrong, though. They don’t give us ‘fake news.’ They are just so demented by their hate for Trump that they have stopped trying to see the world as it is, and can only see it as they want it to be.

Clumsy, unsophisticated Trump campaign operatives trying to get ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton from the Russians, who have been engaged in a long-term information operations campaign to discredit the American democracy, is not collusion.

But the news media have a Trump-Russia narrative they won’t give up without a fight.

This confirmation bias dominates today’s news. Journalists interpret all new information through a filter that is designed to draw only one conclusion: Donald Trump is an illegitimate, unqualified president that colluded with the Russians in order to get elected and remains loyal to their interests over those of the American people.

There is no need to watch or read the news anymore — the above sentence underscores every news story on every news outlet (not including Fox News, of course, which uses a completely different biased filter).

Yet, as the Trump-Russian collusion soap opera continues — with no end in sight — and a president that shows no evidence that he is learning on the job, the American economy chugs along…

…what could go wrong?

The nearly yearlong rise in the U.S. stock markets continues. Stock markets, which are forward-looking, though not always perfect predictors of future economic performance, are increasingly optimistic about this country. This increased optimism is not the residual effect of Obama’s economic policies — the impact of his policies were most likely baked into stock market prices months prior to his departure.

Stock markets react to surprises and shocks to the world economic system, not post-presidential popularity. It is possible Obama’s economic policies resulted in the recent (unexpected) positive economic strength, but that does beg the question, “What Obama economic policy?”

In terms of economic legislation, the Obama saw passage of a major spending bill early in his presidency to boost an ailing economy (though the U.S. Federal Reserve’s historical level of quantitative easing was probably more critical) and a healthcare bill (of course, known as Obamacare).

The Paris Accords on Climate Change can also be included as an economic policy accomplishment for the Obama administration.

Good luck proving any of those three economic policies account for the historic rise in the U.S. stock market since Trump took office. Especially considering the last two have been all but overturned by Trump and the congressional Republicans.

It is far more likely the U.S. stock market is reacting to Trump administration’s business-friendly rollback of regulations (including Obamacare) and likely reductions in corporate and personal income tax rates, particularly for wealthy Americans.

Now that will spur a stock market boom.

Of course, the five trillion dollars in new wealth from rising stock prices could evaporate overnight. Literally, overnight.

And there are clouds looming on the horizon that will challenge the Trump administration’s novel governing approach:

U.S. household debt is rising 60 percent faster than wages. This is not sustainable.

We are in the midst of a long-term experiment to see what level of public debt our economy can sustain without serious economic consequences. So far, so good.

Our (gross) government debt, as a percentage of GDP, stands at 106 percent and could go even higher with the passage of the current GOP tax bill. This level of public debt puts us in the neighborhood of countries like Portugal and Iceland in this regard.

While few economists see a recession in the next six months, but there are concerns.

“Easy monetary policies during the post-crisis period have propelled equity prices higher and driven bond yields lower,” according to Jeffrey Gundlach, founder of DoubleLine Capital. “But as central banks reverse their quantitative easing (QE) and raise rates, this ‘Goldilocks era’ will come to an end.”

In this last week, the U.S. central bank raised rates by a quarter of a percentage point to a range of 1.25 percent to 1.50 percent. It was the third rate hike this year.

And how will the world markets absorb the over 4 trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds as the U.S. Federal Reserve reverses quantitative easing?

“U.S. Treasury debt is high quality and so the market will buy it…but at what price?” asks a frequent ZeroHedge.com blogger, govtrader. “Will the market sell stocks to make room to buy up all this new debt (reverse QE)?  Does this cause the next stock market crash?”

According to govtrader, the answer is probably yes.

Perhaps a ham sandwich could have handled the job of U.S. president through the first year of the Trump presidency — but inevitably there will be an unforeseen economic shock or an unprecedented international crisis that will force this president to make real decisions based on complex, sometimes contradictory, information. When that happens, we will want more than a ham sandwich for a president.


{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.