Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Donald Trump has enjoyed success in being a strategic opponent at precisely the right time – to Barack Obama, to the Democratic party, to his own party and to the Washington establishment. Those willing to attribute his success to little more than fortunate timing or weak opposition ignore the fact that luck alone cannot catapult a candidate into the Presidency of the United States. But for how long can being an arch-opponent last when you yourself have become the source of power?
In his now 50 plus days since assuming the presidency, Trump has done surprisingly little in actual policy terms. A huge amount of politics yes, but very little to move the legislative needle beyond where it lay under his predecessor. The raft of executive orders, typified by the first and second iterations of the highly controversial immigrant travel bans, bypassed Congress and were tools to signal a stark shift from eight years of Obama.
The problem for the President is that the transition from a strident opponent to an actual proponent of policy goes against exactly what made him so popular – the ability to oppose at the perfect time. It is far easier to castigate a policy and describe why it will be the scourge of America’s eternal future in 140 characters than it is to develop a coherent alternative policy platform.
From Obamacare to Trumpcare
The president has been clear that repealing and replacing Obamacare is his first legislative priority. Short of picking up the fight to bring about peace in the Middle East, he couldn’t have chosen much more of a contentious policy area.
After candidate Trump promised “insurance for everybody” in a beautiful yet non-descript form, Republicans in Congress are finding proposing detailed health policy eminently more difficult than their years of virulently opposing Obamacare. Paul Ryan has gone to great lengths to pitch in detail the Republican replacement plan to the public, though he has been unable to put a figure on how many Americans would lose coverage under the new legislation. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has helped him – while likely rendering the GOP plan dead on arrival in Congress. For the CBO projected that if the Republicans’ bill to repeal and replace Obamacare passes, it could leave an extra 24 million people uninsured within a decade.
The cracks in what looks to be an already shaky Republican conference in Congress have already begun to show, with vocal opposition coming from all corners of the party and key outside influences like Breitbart. The scope for a split on healthcare amongst Republicans is clear: for some Republican ideologues, Obamacare is anathema to American freedom and choice; others fear, in more practical political terms, the prospect of owning a failed attempt to reform healthcare that leaves more Americans without coverage.
And where might the President fall? With a long history of flexibility towards policy and an obsession with ‘winning’ in the court of public opinion, Trump will not stay wedded to a failing policy for long. A plan born by Republicans in the House of Representatives may well be killed by the Republican in the White House, creating a face-off between establishment and anti-establishment wings of the same party.
Restricted by a legislative framework that requires total Republican support in the Senate for the passage of bills, the president will revert to campaign mode to quash internal opposition when it arises. In springing up at rallies in the industrial mid-West, the loyally Republican South and hard-hit coal towns, Trump will reinvigorate his core support to the chants of “USA! USA! USA!”.
But his target audience will not be TV crews and their ‘fake news’. Instead, mass rallies and large scale support for the president and by association his political agenda will be used to drive a wedge between grass roots support and lawmakers in the Republican party hostile to the president’s plans. Thinking of opposing Trump on a key vote? Watch how popular he is amongst the tens of thousands of residents in your district or state who cheer at his next rally. Campaign tactics used to stoke the party base and highlight support for the Trump plan will be used as a human polling exercise, and a display of support not in Washington but amongst ‘We the people’.
Being president doesn’t mean you’re CEO of America
For a man who had spent his entire professional career in business, the simple solution to hostile colleagues would be to fire them. But much as Trump craves such control over his party, he will need to work with Congress if he has any hopes of progressing his own policy agenda. Now is the point when Trump must stop disrupting and start rebuilding. Healthcare was a logical place for the Republican legislative path to begin owing to party pressure since the ACA became law in 2010 and intense focus on the 2016 campaign trail. But the president now faces a serious political struggle. He may wish he had chosen an easier first battle to win.