President Donald Trump has had a ragged couple of weeks. Without reliving every sour note, let’s just say he hasn’t started the year with an inspirational vibe. His unforced, bizarre errors have overshadowed soaring consumer confidence, the potential benefits of tax cuts and the dismantling of Obama-era regulations. But could everything soon change? Is Trump about to take a break from his acidic public presence?
I was encouraged to hear that the president is going to attend the World Economic Forum later this month. The Davos meeting is a sui generis event on the world stage. It draws an unequaled audience of business and political leaders from around the world. But as the forum has gotten bigger, it has also become predictable and politically correct. The featured CEOs and participants too often offer tame set pieces that gently align their businesses with fashionable topics such as workers’ rights, inequality and, of course, climate change. A certain degree of hypocrisy is expected and warmly received by the financial elite and the mainstream media. Well, Trump won’t be sticking to that script. The question is: Will he have any script that doesn’t include insults, uninformed observations and gratuitous non sequiturs that will only add to the growing disillusionment with his presidency worldwide?
I am in the midst of completing a trip that has taken me to Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Business and political leaders scowl with surprise, horror and disgust whenever I ask how the president is doing. They all remark on the inexplicable things that Trump has said or tweeted. They regret that the United States is retreating from the world. Depending on where you are, they talk about the undesirable forces that they see filling the vacuum created by America’s exit. That said, most leaders think Trump is trying to do the right thing with the U.S. economy. They also note that the U.S. withdrawal started under President Barack Obama. Many say Trump deserves credit for producing the economic momentum that is beginning to build. Nobody is nostalgic for a return to the Obama days. So, maybe Trump will use his appearance at Davos to impress this important audience and demonstrate that he not only has a plan but also knows what he is doing.
Trump’s relationship with the business elite has always been uneven. He is wealthy and famous but somewhat out of the mainstream, compared with the wealthy and famous who gather at Davos. Traditional banks and industry leaders never much liked doing business with Trump. Everyone knows he made money, but no one knows how much or what money actually came from building things vs. just profiting from his brand. Put it this way: There probably won’t be another reality TV show star in the audience.
I’m not sure if Trump sees the attendees at the World Economic Forum as a friendly peer group or if he resents them because of past slights and for having never been embraced as one of their own. Regardless, the trip is a great opportunity for Trump. Saying something serious about world economic growth and reassuring the world that the United States will be the world’s engine for growth would do the president and the Republican Party a lot of good. If nothing else, Trump might shift the focus away from all the distractions and talk instead about something befitting the office that he holds. Coming away from Davos with some new advocates would serve Trump well and help build confidence in the world economy.
The White House knows what he needs to say: Regulatory changes anchored by the president’s successful tax reform are turbo-charging the American economy. Trump needs to emphasize that stifling regulations — from onerous labor rules to the suppression of energy development — not only have been rolled back but also are being replaced by aggressive, business-friendly, pro-growth initiatives. The event will be a test of whether Trump can deliver a welcome message to a relatively friendly international crowd and not use it to settle scores or say something wildly offensive.
Can Trump stand before this audience and not demand accolades but instead present himself as an able leader? Can he not mention Hillary or Bill Clinton, Obama and fake news, or single out individual leaders or countries that he doesn’t particularly care for? If Trump can’t make a good presentation in front of this audience and come away with some new support, it will be another bad sign.
The bar for success at the World Economic Forum is actually pretty low. It will come down to whether the president’s words, gestures and public posture convince the audience that he is able to conduct himself as a leader who not only warrants respect but also will be effective in the future. Failure at Davos will have wide repercussions. A large share of the world’s leaders could give up on the Trump presidency. They may still hope for the best, but they will no longer think that big things are possible for the United States. They will think Trump is incapable of leading a resurgence of American preeminence.