Donald Trump promised to get Congress to repeal Obamacare, enact tax reform, pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, impose tariffs on outsourcers, subsidize child care and fund a border wall with Mexico — all in the first 100 days of his presidency. Not surprisingly, none of those things happened. What is surprising is that little of this agenda has even been submitted by the president to Congress: no tax bill, no infrastructure bill, no anti-outsourcing bill, no child-care bill and no legislation to build the wall. Why?
The explanation goes beyond the usual factors that bedevil any new president — overpromising on the pace of action, underpreparing for the challenges of office, trouble in staffing up. These do play some part in Trump’s achingly slow start. But Trump’s failure to get key agenda items to the starting line reflects more fundamental problems in policymaking — problems that will persist even after this administration is fully staffed and acclimated.
First, policymaking at the White House is hard and tedious work that involves digesting reams of paper, weighing difficult trade-offs and enduring hours of meetings. There is little evidence Trump has any interest in this sort of endeavor. The campaign anecdote that Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was offered a vice presidency with control over domestic and foreign policy, in a White House where Trump would be responsible only for “making America great again,” speaks volumes. Even an “art of the deal” president cannot make policy if he is unaware of key parts of his proposals, as he was shown to be on the question of preexisting conditions in health-care reform or whether he had approved the Keystone XL pipeline without a requirement that it would be built using U.S. steel. In a constantly leaking White House, it is revealing that there have been no stories about Trump making, say, a hard choice on tax reform after a long review session. Trump’s most memorable comment about policy was revelatory: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Second, Trump’s career reflects an inconsistency and expediency about ideas that indicate he will never take policymaking seriously. Yes, all political leaders shift their views over time, some dramatically. But no major figure in either party ever has been as helter-skelter as Trump. He has embraced government-funded universal health care, supported late-term abortions and proposed the largest tax hike in history — and the exact opposite of all of these things, as well — to achieve his political objectives at a given moment. While running for president, Trump said that the minimum wage was “too high,” that it should not change and that it “has to go up.” On a single day of the 2016 campaign, he broadcast three stances on his core campaign issue — immigration policy. I say this not to relitigate a campaign charge about Trump and flip-flopping, but rather to suggest that, absent specific direction from the president at each juncture in the process, his team is probably hard-pressed to divine the Trump policy approach to any question, beyond political expediency. This doubtlessly lengthens the process as underlings wrestle over several possible approaches. Policymaking is hard if one cannot take the president literally; impossible if his ideas cannot be taken seriously.
Finally, the Trump policy process must surely be gridlocked because — to the extent there is any indication of what Trumpism is as a policy philosophy — it is a jumble of populist slogans and corporatist concessions totally at war with itself. The Trump plan includes a promise to raise taxes on corporations that outsource and a pledge to cut taxes on those same corporations to a record low. Trump has embraced a Democratic plan to restore limits on Wall Street that were removed 20 years ago — while advancing a Republican plan to strip away limits imposed after the 2008 financial crisis. He has called for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending but proposed a budget without a penny of net new spending or borrowing. He promised voters they would get better health-care coverage, then held a party in the White House Rose Garden for a House bill that would allow insurance companies to slash benefits — a bill that he characterized as “mean” the following month. Every campaign agenda contains some half-zebras, half-elephants — but the Trump platform designed to appeal to disaffected manufacturing workers who resent globalization, and disaffected globalists who resent taxation and regulation, is especially problematic in implementation.
When Trump hit the 100-day mark with no major legislative wins, his allies told the world to give him time. But time is not Trump’s trouble: His lack of interest in policymaking and an incoherent agenda are the obstacles. Congress can’t dispose of plans when the president can’t even get his act together to propose them.