Washington watch with Lee Hamilton
As hard as last year’s presidential-election campaign might have been and the governmental transition is proving to be, Donald Trump’s challenges are really just beginning. Governing after a toxic election in which the results awarded him an ambiguous national mandate – his opponent, after all, won almost three million more votes – will require finesse, a clear-eyed view of his role in the world and no small amount of luck.
There is no question that Trump and the Republican majority in congress will be in firm control of the government, able to call the shots on policy, and that cooperation between the president and congress should be far more assured than it has been for the past six years.
But, even under these circumstances, he will soon find that the commitments and promises made during the campaign are going to be very hard to carry out. His number-one priority almost certainly is going to be rebuilding US economic power. A great many of the people who voted for him did so because they expect him to produce more good jobs, better incomes and better economic opportunity.
But he faces great difficulties on that front – gross inequalities of income and opportunity, persistent poverty, a decaying infrastructure, a challenging education system, a healthcare system that, even after reform, remains expensive and often ineffective, and rapid technological and global changes that make it harder for people without a college education
to find work. To say nothing of a slow-moving congress and an entrenched bureaucracy.
Most Americans are not getting ahead and they know it. Trump’s supporters might grant him a grace period in which to fix all this but economic dissatisfaction will persist.
Other domestic issues addressed in his campaign will prove no easier to pursue.
He began to moderate his position on replacing Obamacare within days of winning the election. He has not set out a comprehensive alternative – simply keeping the popular parts and jettisoning the rest, which he suggested he might do, is not an acceptable or workable option. Which leaves open the question of how to insure the 20 million people who gained coverage under Obamacare. Trump has suggested he’d support health savings accounts, allow insurers to sell policies across state lines and would also like to convert Medicaid from an entitlement program into a block grant, proposals certain to arouse fierce opposition.
He has made clear that he wants to enact large tax cuts, especially on businesses – while at the same time spending billions on infrastructure. The path to tax cuts is clear – members of congress like to vote for tax decreases. However, most evaluations of Trump’s policy proposals suggest that deficits will explode under his program.
He has talked about offsetting some of that revenue by eliminating or limiting loopholes and tax deductions but that has been standard rhetoric in Washington for years and it has never been carried out with any effectiveness. We’ll see how much stomach congress and the country have for sending deficits spiraling upward.
Other Trump programs – slashing regulations on financial institutions, on worker protections and on environmental impacts –will also arouse much opposition.
It’s worth remembering the words of Harold Macmillan, who was once asked what he most feared as Great Britain’s prime minister. “Events, dear boy, events,” he replied. Surprises will come along that interrupt even the best-tended plans and buttress or destroy a president’s standing in the blink of an eye. The senate, in particular, is only precariously balanced in Trump’s favor and it won’t take much for Democrats to brake or stymie his initiatives.
As a candidate, he effectively captured the discontent and anger of many Americans. He upended the political order with a new brand of politics and policies. My guess is that he is on a steep learning curve, having underestimated the difficulties and overestimated his capabilities to deal with them. We should all extend him the benefit of the doubt and see how his presidency unfolds before becoming judgmental.
Lee Hamilton, who was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years, is a senior adviser for Indiana University’s center on representative government, a distinguished scholar at the university’s school of global and international studies and a professor of practice at its school of public and environmental affairs.