The Potemkin Policies of Donald Trump

Published in The Atlantic

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

John Sommers II / Reuters
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It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.

On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.

But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.

It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.

In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.

Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.

The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.

Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveledthat they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.

Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.

The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.

Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.

This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.

It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.

It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.

Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.

In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.

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This entry was posted in economy, Employment, Environment, Tax Reform, Trump and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Potemkin Policies of Donald Trump

  1. Mike Anthony says:

    Potemkin policies, indeed! This post pretty much nails it

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