The Trump presidency operates on two levels. And it’s creating problems for itself on both of them.
One is its public face, epitomized by President Donald Trump’s incessant tweeting and his zest for unprovoked criticism of everyone from political foes to longtime U.S. allies. Even many supporters question his refusal to transition from campaign to governing mode.
Second is a growing disconnect on policy, where Trump seems primarily a salesman for policies that, in crucial areas like health care and the budget, are starkly different from positions he advocated in his campaign. The result has accentuated the rightward thrust of a presidency that promised to be more ideologically eclectic and populist than rigidly conservative.
A major factor is that the onetime corporate mogul has basically sub-contracted responsibility for crafting and implementing those policies to an array of current and former House Republicans who are pushing a conservative agenda that seems different at times from his own less doctrinaire views.
It’s a result of his political inexperience and his failure to develop the kind of personal political and policy structure most presidents bring into office from their campaigns.
Beyond naming some fellow millionaires to economic posts, he has relied strongly both for staffing domestic departments and developing their policies on Vice President Mike Pence, himself an alumnus of the anti-government social conservatives who dominate the House GOP.
On health care, for example, the bill before the House represents the ideas of House Speaker Paul Ryan and his congressional colleagues far more than Trump’s.
It makes no real pretense to providing the “insurance for everybody” Trump promised and short-changes the resources he said states would use to ensure “nobody is left out.” It would cover fewer people without significant reductions in costs and give a big tax cut to wealthy Americans.
As written, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it threatened the health care coverage of up to 24 million Americans, including many poor and elderly Trump voters in rural areas. Compromise efforts seeking more support from conservatives promise even sharper cuts — and less coverage — in the broader Medicaid program that provided much of Obamacare’s expansion of health coverage.
Even if the bill squeaks through the House, it faces substantial revision in the Senate where members are less ideological and more attuned to the broader electorates of their states. Whether any version can pass both houses remains open to question.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration issued a preliminary budget outline that seeks to finance defense increases and Trump’s controversial anti-immigration wall in part by cutting modest-sized domestic programs, many of which benefit the poor and elderly and contribute only marginally to the federal deficit. Reaction was negative — and bipartisan.
“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” was the telling comment from Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the former House Appropriations Committee chairman, who represents a heavily pro-Trump Appalachian district.
Rogers was especially critical of the fact that, despite Trump’s promise to help restore coal country jobs, a vow he repeated this week in Kentucky, his budget eliminates the $146 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which provides economic assistance to the region.
Other proposed cuts also undercut Trump’s purported priorities. While continuing to advocate a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, his budget would slash Transportation Department funding by 13 percent, eliminating a program to finance capital projects in both urban and rural areas.
For the most part, eliminating funds for after school programs and Meals on Wheels, and reducing money for mitigating pollution damage, assisting local businesses and cleaning up Lake Erie and Chesapeake Bay will do little to cut the deficit. But they could damage the lifestyles of thousands of individual Americans.
If Trump were as serious about cutting federal spending as his campaign denunciations of the national debt growth suggested, he would revive proposals to limit cost-of-living increases and raise premiums for wealthier Social Security and Medicare recipients, rather than target Medicaid, which helps poorer people.
Interestingly, Trump has said little publicly about the proposed budget cuts, and his comments on the health bill have mainly exhorted members to carry the day in the House. Unsurprisingly, he seems much more concerned about winning than about the potential policy impact.
Despite a sinking overall job approval rating, polls and anecdotal evidence show Trump’s political base retains its confidence in him. But his public comments are undercutting respect for his presidency at home and abroad. And his policy prescriptions will do little for voters who trust him to improve their lives.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.