Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Expectations of Donald Trump’s presidency are high despite opinions of him being low. In a Washington Post/NBC News poll this week, 61 per cent of Americans expressed an excellent or good view of how the President-elect will handle the economy. The nation is ready for the self-proclaimed “biggest jobs creator God ever created” to deliver. But the path ahead is rocky, and it begins with his own party.
As his presidency begins after today’s inauguration, Trump will embark on a new legislative agenda that will inevitably set him at odds with Republicans in Congress owing to both politics and personality. The role of Reince Priebus as the president’s Chief of Staff will be a vital bridge between the White House and Congress, since he taps the network that he formed as Chairman of the Republican National Committee and a close ally of Paul Ryan, the House Speaker.
Utilising Priebus, the new President will need to carry the GOP with him in order to deliver his more than considerable campaign promises. While much has been written about the divergence of opinion between Trump and his party on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare and the future of US-Russia relations, there are three other areas which could pose a serious threat to the potential success of the Trump presidency:
1. Tax reform
With the broad support of his party, Trump has promised to eliminate two regulations for each new one issued by Barack Obama. Yet whilst tax reform is a top policy priority for House and Senate Republicans, a fight is brewing over what it might look like.
Tax reform is a key pillar of the GOP’s ‘Better Way’ policy platform, and the border adjustment tax (BAT) is both a lynchpin of it and a pet project of Ryan’s. It therefore came as a shock this week when the President-elect criticised the proposal, telling the Wall Street Journal: “Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it”. He then rowed back, conceding it will be up for discussion. The new President’s desire to shrink the US corporate tax rate to 15 per cent differs from the GOP’s plan, which calls for a reduction to 20 per cent. “I understand the tax laws better than almost anyone. And that is why I am one that can truly fix them,” Trump has said. Maybe he knows something his party doesn’t?
This incident should not be seen in isolation but the start of a familiar process. The pattern of long-term GOP policies being undercut by a single Trump sentence or tweet will place an enormous reliance on Ryan to keep the Republican conference together. An era of divisions will spell difficulty for him: after all, his predecessor, John Boehner, was forced into resigning his speakership in large part due to internal party pressure.
2. The trade triumvirate
Free trade has long been a cornerstone of the Republican Party and yet a Republican President looks set to vacate America from being its global leader. The three men Trump has nominated to senior trade roles all share his position:
- Robert Lightizer (US Trade Representative) – A former deputy trade negotiator in the Reagan administration who made a career as a steel trade attorney advocating tariff barriers on foreign-made products.
- Peter Navarro (Office of Trade and Industrial Policy) – Navarro quite literally wrote the book on attacking China’s trade practices and how it is negatively impacting the US manufacturing base.
- Wilbur Ross (Commerce Secretary) – The private equity billionaire has a history of speaking out against bad trade deals and recently labelled China the “most protectionist” economy in the world. Pending Senate approval, he will be the liaison between Trump and the business community.
In Whitehall, the Department for International Trade will be delighted that Congressional support has already been tabled in support of a UK-US trade deal. Senators Mike Lee and Tom Cotton have introduced S.3123 – the United Kingdom Trade Continuity Act – which calls to initiate negotiations “expeditiously” with the UK to reach a comprehensive bilateral trade deal. But while Trump’s messaging on NAFTA and trade deals were popular on the campaign, how long will Republicans in Congress stand back as other global superpowers seeks to fill the void that America will vacate as the world’s free trade advocate?
3. Trump himself
The new President enters the White House with the lowest favourability ratings at this stage in 40 years and fights brewing with his party over core policy platforms. Presidents don’t need to be popular, but positive polling helps push a legislative agenda if it means members of Congress are hearing good things from voters in their districts. So with little sign of pursuing a more statesmanlike persona, Trump could soon become his own biggest political problem.
If things start to unravel for him, he will have no one to blame, given Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. The deep policy differences already laid bare between the President-elect, his surrounding cast and the Republican party means that divisions are unavoidable. Who can Trump legitimately blame if his party distances itself from some of his more radical plans; if growth does not hit four per cent; if Mexico refuses to pay for the border wall; if companies continue to move manufacturing jobs abroad despite hostile tweets and public coercion?
In November 2018, 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be contested, a vital bellwether in the middle of Donald Trump’s presidential term. With a constant onus on fundraising and campaigning, Republicans up for re-election cannot afford to support Trump for too long if real change isn’t felt in their districts. With re-election looming large, it may not be long before those whose jobs are on the line feel they need to abandon their already unpopular leader if promises go undelivered, and Trump’s style keeps getting him into very public predicaments.