One of the best lines in the movie “Animal House” is when the incorrigible partying frat brother John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi) says: “Seven years of college, down the drain.” Well, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s flurry of first-week executive orders, you can almost hear dozens of former Obama administration officials saying: “Eight years of policies, down the drain.”
That’s because President Trump has indeed done about as much as a president can do on his own over the past week to begin the process of unraveling a lot of President Obama’s policies. While many see his flurry of executive orders as some kind of new agenda, the real impetus behind every signed order has been to try to first bring many of the nation’s policies back where they were in 2008.
Leading that parade was the basic elimination of the crucial individual insurance coverage mandate for Obamacare, which President Trump did by signing the executive order allowing federal agencies to stop enforcing it.
“If the Republicans can be pressured not to break ranks, Trump can get almost all of his agenda passed.”
Then there’s his executive order aimed at allowing border agents more freedom to detain undocumented immigrants and end the policy of “catch and release” that other presidents have allowed and President Obama revived last year.
And the third big one was the executive order removing the Obama administration roadblocks for the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipeline products.
Now comes the hard part: Actually enacting the new policies President Trump has promised. And for that, he needs to work with Congress. You can say the relationship status between President Trump and Congress, even with the GOP-controlled Congress, is: “It’s complicated.” After his address to the GOP Congressional retreat in Philadelphia Thursday, we can see that President Trump isn’t going to alter his ideology to fit the conservative agenda. Instead, he’s going to continue to push the Republicans to alter their agenda to fit his. Now the question is: Can it work?
This is an important question and distinction because the new president is simply not an ideological Republican, Democrat, or really anything else with an existing political label. He has an agenda that includes classic conservative goals like tax cuts and appointing strict constructionist judges, but also more populist policies like border security and ripping up trade deals. And President Trump clearly doesn’t think it’s his job to find a way to coordinate those differing ideologies. The Republicans will just have to deal it.
And here’s perhaps the most important caveat: If the Republicans can be pressured not to break ranks, Trump can get almost all of his agenda passed. When former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid used the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster rule, a simple majority became all that was needed to get legislation passed. Trump began his public push to keep the GOP in line with his speech at Thursday’s retreat. The speech at the Joint Session of Congress that President Trump gives next month will be a key continuation of that effort, along with a clear message to the handful of Democrats who might be willing to vote for one or two Trump-favored bills.
And those Democrats had better be listening, too, because they’re about to find out that obstructing President Trump at every turn like the Republicans mostly did to President Obama won’t work so well for them. GOP Congressional candidates won big 2010 and 2014 midterm victories because the majority of the public really didn’t seem to like Obamacare or the way it was jammed through the legislative process. They also didn’t see enough of a positive effect from the stimulus.
But the Trump team has a much more far-reaching agenda that goes beyond partisan lines and is simply so varied that it’s not likely the Democrats will bet their electoral wad on opposing any one or even two issues. That’s especially true when the White House is favoring a lot of Democrat-sounding issues, like lowering drug prices, boosting infrastructure spending, fighting outsourcing, oh an a border TAX. (That’s right, a Republican … proposing a tax!)
When the Republicans were obstructing President Obama’s agenda, at least they were standing firm on conservative principles opposing government interference in business and health care. What will the Democrats in Congress tell their voters if they insist on blocking President Trump’s efforts to fix their roads, make their prescriptions more affordable, or keep the local factory open?
That’s the clue as to what parts of Trump’s agenda will pass Congress. Speaker Ryan and the GOP members will probably maintain the unity to pass tax cuts, confirm a conservative Trump choice for the Supreme Court, and even get some kind of “for better or for worse” Obamacare replacement in place. But it will also probably take a few Democrats, especially from states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, to get the Trump trade bills through. We don’t know enough yet about the White House plans to reduce drug prices, but look for the White House to seek and get more bipartisan support on that effort as well.
But it will also take more than speeches. President Trump is already showing signs of wanting to work closer and meet with Congressional leaders from both parties more often than what we saw during President Obama’s infamous cold relationship with Capitol Hill. It sure seems like President Trump enjoyed those photo ops at Trump Tower during the transition period punctuated by smiles and handshakes with a handful of CEOs. I’ll bet President Trump would love to replicate that with a few smiling Democrats at the White House from time to time.
President Trump can be an equal-opportunity berating machine live and on Twitter when it comes to corporations, celebrities, and both sides of the partisan D.C. establishment. But in many ways, that makes him uniquely suited to actually get some major things done. He’s not shackled by ideology, loyalty to big donors, or even a lot of personal shame or restraint. He likes making deals, period. And as he begins his serious work with Congress, President Trump may pull off bigger surprises than he did as a candidate.