Tough Road Ahead for Trump in Year Two
As we reach, gingerly, the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, none of the disasters feared by critics has come to pass. The economy has turned at least mildly upward rather than plummet to depression. The executive branch has obeyed court orders. No military disaster has occurred. Fears that seemed plausible to many have proved unjustified.
In some important respects, Trump and the congressional Republican majorities have made important changes in public policy — in appointing judges, dismantling regulations, cutting tax rates and changing the tax system. You don’t have to agree with his opponents and critics to understand how they must be infuriated that such a narrow electoral result has proved to be so consequential.
But Trump has not yet delivered on what The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib correctly identifies as his signature issues in his 2015-16 campaign — immigration, trade and infrastructure. And it’s far from certain how and whether he will do so.
Take immigration, currently much in the news. Trump’s decision in September to withdraw Barack Obama’s probably illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in March has given him leverage over Democrats. They want a statute legalizing the presence of the 700,000 or so people brought illegally to the country as children, and he needs some Democratic votes.
But he has veto power and therefore is positioned to demand other changes Democrats don’t want — such as an end to extended-family chain migration and the visa lottery, moves toward a skills-based immigration system like Canada’s and Australia’s, mandating E-Verify to determine the status of job applicants, and, of course, the border wall.
Unfortunately, Trump is not always clear about these things. He told people at a bipartisan congressional meeting that he’d sign anything they want, but at the next meeting, he indicated — reportedly in scatological terms — that he wants no part of the package put together by Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Lindsey Graham.
In the process, he seemed unaware that we tend to get high-skilled immigrants from many “s—hole countries,” from which brainy people naturally want to escape. And it’s not clear he appreciates that we’ve been getting a generally higher-skilled immigrant inflow since the Great Recession than we did before.
Some Democrats, perhaps misled by biased press coverage, are willing to risk a government shutdown rather than compromise on DACA. Some want to flay Trump as a racist in the hope that he’ll cave. Some Republicans oppose the reforms Trump purportedly seeks. It’s a negotiation with many moving parts, on which the press is an unreliable narrator and in which the president often seems to be practicing something other than the art of the deal.
Meanwhile, offstage, negotiations are ongoing with Canada and Mexico on revising NAFTA. The chief danger here is that overweening American demands could affect Mexico’s July presidential election. Currently leading the polls is the left-wing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who tied up Mexico City’s streets for months with demonstrators protesting his narrow loss in the 2006 election.
AMLO, as he is called, is a particularly formidable candidate because as mayor of Mexico City, he showed a rare capacity to deliver on promises, and seeing as there’s no runoff, he needs only a plurality in this multi-candidate race to win. If elected, he’d probably be more hostile to the U.S. than any Mexican president over the past 70 years. That’s not a desirable outcome — and one the Trump administration should take some pains to avoid.
Then there’s infrastructure, one issue on which it has been possible to imagine bipartisan agreement. Democrats have spoken derisively of the Trump campaign’s mutterings about public-private partnerships, which have been employed to great benefit in Canada and Europe; private investors are unlikely to back bridge-to-nowhere boondoggles.
It’s not clear that either the administration or the opposition appreciates that the real need here is not so much for shiny new projects as it is for effective maintenance of existing facilities. Take a look at the New York subway if you need convincing.
Then there’s the question of whether Democrats want to be seen cooperating with Trump on anything. Certainly, their party’s base doesn’t. Many Democrats seem determined not just to win the next election but to overturn the most recent one. Put that together with Trump’s chaotic negotiating style and considerable ignorance of specifics and you can see how his second year could turn out worse than the first.
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