Nothing comes easy in the Trump presidency, but over the last few months, the White House has shown fitful but real progress toward more effective policy-making.
From domestic policy to foreign affairs, President Trump has notched more real victories over the autumn and winter months than during the rest of his administration combined. This includes the passage of a large tax-cut package, the long delayed first major legislative achievement of his presidency. Trump has appointed conservative judges and further cut regulations. He has fulfilled campaign promises by announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcing a plan to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has also presided over the end of ISIS’s territorial control in Syria and Iraq.
These and other victories seem to reflect a learning curve. Most new presidents manage to ram through top priorities in their first days or months in office, when their political capital is high, but Trump entered office with little goodwill and little or no understanding of either policy or the policy-making process, as well as a staff largely inexperienced in either — though proficient at intramural feuding. There’s little indication that Trump himself has learned much more about policy or legislation, but he has professionalised his White House staff, creating a more effective team. The rub is that insofar as the Trump administration is hitting its stride, it is doing so just as the prospects for further success dry up.
Every few months, I try to look back on what Trump has accomplished in the intervening period. This is an important exercise because coverage of the president is overwhelmingly negative, largely for reasons of his own making, and the Russia probe and other scandals tend to obscure more mundane political action. In that context, it’s easy for the public to miss or forget about changes that will affect the nation and American policy for years and decades to come. This is not intended as an assessment of the wisdom of the decisions — of the items included here, some are overwhelmingly unpopular, and some may end up producing largely negative effects, even from the perspective of those who advocated them. The point is simply to measure what the White House is doing.
The biggest single accomplishment for Trump in the time since I last conducted this exercise is the passage of a suite of tax cuts. In some ways, that bill was a disappointment. Early on, Trump and GOP leaders were promising an overhaul of the tax code on a par with the 1986 tax-reform law — a full rewrite of the tax code, permanent changes, returns that could be filed on a postcard. The final bill is none of that. Because leaders were rushing frantically to get a bill passed before Christmas and made little attempt to attract Democratic votes, they ended up with a conventional, if large, package of tax cuts. Those cuts overwhelmingly favour high earners and changes to individual tax rates will expire in 10 years.
But after multiple failed attempts at repealing Obamacare, and with no other major legislation through Congress, the bar was lowered. Trump and Republicans showed up a chorus of naysayers who insisted there was no way a bill could be written and passed by the end of the year. The resulting bill allowed Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan to all claim victory, and the cuts for high earners and corporations fulfil longstanding wishes from GOP donors and machers.
Since Trump signed the law, multiple large companies have announced raises for employees, many of them citing the new tax plan as an incentive. Some executives are likely catering to a president who responds well to flattery and has no hesitations about bullying companies, while other messages have been tempered (Walmart announced raises noisily, while quietly laying off thousands of Sam’s Club employees), but Trump has sought to harvest a political dividend.
Elsewhere on the domestic front, Trump has continued to make progress on his immigration agenda. After multiple attempts and multiple defeats in court, the Supreme Court in December allowed Trump’s travel ban, née Muslim ban, to take effect while legal challenges continue, a partial victory nearly a year in the making. The efficacy of the ban has never been well-demonstrated, but Trump has argued for months it is essential and now has a version in place.
In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, marking the culmination of a promise that Trump made during the campaign (but had on occasion contradicted since then). Arrests for illegal border crossings from Mexico, generally a rough proxy for the number of people attempting to enter the United States, reached their lowest level since 1971, although that is a continuation of a pre-existing trend, and Trump persists in exaggerating the size of the drop.
The raw number of deportations has actually dropped from the end of Barack Obama’s term to the start of Trump’s, but that is in part because of fewer crossings. The Trump administration has ramped up deportations of people already living in the United States, including with some high-profile moves like a nationwide raid on 7-Elevens. The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that federal officials are planning a sweeping raid in Northern California intended as a brushback on sanctuary cities.
Trump has not succeeded in repealing Obamacare, a longstanding priority, and after multiple attempts, congressional GOP leaders have demonstrated that they have little stomach for another try any time soon. But the president has managed to gradually erode the law, including a repeal of the individual mandate. Around 3.2 million fewer people have insurance than did at the start of 2017 and a plurality of Republicans in an Economist/YouGov poll said the law had been repealed.
The president has also continued to nominate federal judges at a record clip and to see them confirmed to the federal bench. He successfully installed Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, as interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, from which perch Mulvaney has moved quickly to dismantle regulations on the financial industry.
Abroad, even as Trump struggles with North Korea policy, strained ties with allies and a broken relationship with his secretary of state, the president saw ISIS driven from its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, in large part due to American fighters and strategy. Trump inherited a fight going well for the US and a strategy on the way to achieving that, as Obama administration alums like to point out, but he saw that strategy through. This doesn’t mean ISIS is no longer a threat, but the end of its territorial claims is a major milestone.
In announcing US recognition of Jerusalem and future plans to move the American embassy there, Trump followed through on a promise made not just by him but by several predecessors, who backtracked once in office. Like most choices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the move won him both praise and fury.
In August, I argued that while Trump was quietly accomplishing more than was immediately clear, nearly all of his accomplishments dovetailed with traditional priorities of the Republican Party — deregulation, judgeships and the like — while his own distinctive priorities were stuck in neutral. That remains largely the case, as exemplified by the tax bill, which eschewed any of the populist flourishes for which Trump was labelled distinctive in the past. In his immigration enforcement push, he is matching the rhetoric of many establishment Republicans while going beyond what Republican presidents have been willing to do.
In sum, the past few months have been the most productive period of the Trump’s presidency. Even if the president has not become an especially effective advocate for policies, his staff has become more effective at avoiding the problems that sank earlier policy attempts. At times, the White House relationship with congressional leaders has even looked strong, though it’s an up-and-down affair.
The danger for Trump is that this might prove to be the high point of his four-year term — and if so, it wouldn’t be an especially impressive peak.
First, while not every move the administration has made amounted to picking low-hanging fruit, it is true that nearly all the fruit remaining on the tree hangs high. Many of the things that the White House is best positioned to accomplish, it already has. As noted above, the early days of a presidency are often the most effective, as a new executive rides popularity and good will to quick legislative victories. Trump never had that good will and did not notch a major legislative win until December.
Because of his early legislative struggles, he placed a great deal of emphasis on rolling back regulations, but many of the most alluring rules to cut have already been slashed and departments have found courts curtailing their ability to do so. Similarly, Trump’s alacrity in appointing judges means that while there will be new vacancies over the next three years, the greatest proportional impact is already past, and his speed has led to some dubious appointments, leading Republican senators to aggressively brush the White House back with some recent nominations.
In some cases, the immediate successes have lengthened the odds for other wins down the line. The end of DACA, in particular, has proven deeply complicated. Immediately upon his administration ending it, Trump began calling for Congress to pass a replacement. This is not necessarily a contradiction, as many Republicans have argued that President Obama overreached his authority in creating DACA, though it did stand in contrast with some of Trump’s prior statements. Yet actually agreeing to a deal in Congress to do that has proved highly challenging, in addition to inspiring the “s***hole” showdown.
The Jerusalem moves offer another trade-off. Dire warnings of an immediate intifada have not been borne out, though there are signs the decision may have wrecked whatever chance there was of a peace deal in the near future. Trump also seemed confused about the role of Jerusalem in peace negotiations.
To pass the tax bill, Republicans opted to move quickly and act without any Democratic votes. In addition to meaning individual tax cuts were not permanent, that deprived the GOP of any political cover on the plan. The law has been highly unpopular, with many people not even realising they will get a tax break (though the numbers have improved slightly). Trump continues to get little credit for a growing economy, much to his chagrin.
Getting anything done in Congress will only get harder between now and November. One reason is that the GOP margin in the Senate has now been whittled down to a single seat, with Democrat Doug Jones’s win in an Alabama special election over a candidate Trump endorsed and in a toxic atmosphere for Republicans created by Trump. Besides that, legislators are already beginning to look toward the November midterm elections, which will freeze progress, as members try to squirm out of any votes that could hurt them at the polls.
The outlook for the next two years of the Trump presidency will be clearer after that election. If Republicans can hold and expand their margins, Trump may be able to get more done. At the moment, though, the political atmosphere looks very favourable to Democrats. If they do pick up some seats, or even take over control of the House, Trump will either face gridlock or else have to begin brokering bipartisan deals — something he has spoken about in the past, but often followed up with bitter feuds with Democratic leaders.
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