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White House

Oroville Dam Crisis Is an Opportunity for Trump

If the president is serious about investing in infrastructure, he will act now.

As Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama chief of staff, famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." The Trump administration now has a serious crisis available: an overflowing dam and evacuations in Oroville, California. We may get our first glimpse of how serious the Trump administration is about passing an infrastructure bill.

Massive rainfall in California has alleviated historic drought but has created a new problem. Because of all the water, a spillway of the Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the U.S., was on the verge of failure Sunday night, forcing the evacuation of over 180,000 residents. While as of Monday water levels were receding, more rain is in the forecast later this week, so the potential for more problems remains.

If this story catches President Donald Trump's attention, his response will be revealing, because it's the kind of crisis that could allow him to enact the agenda he campaigned on.

Oroville is in California's 1st Congressional District, a solidly Republican district represented by a Republican, Doug LaMalfa, and which Trump won by a margin of 20 points. These are his people. Concerns about the dam's emergency spillway being earthen rather than concrete were raised over a decade ago.

It's the perfect Trumpian setup -- a crisis brought about by bad infrastructure unaddressed by "all talk, no action" politicians. Trump could take advantage of the situation to pressure Congress into acting quickly on infrastructure in general. If Congress went along with it, he'd look decisive and strong. If Congress fought him on it, well … Trump isn't one to back down from a fight.

Presidential action on the Oroville Dam crisis would give the world a better understanding of how Trump intends to govern. This has become increasingly unclear. After a flurry of executive orders and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the president's agenda has ground to a halt. Many cabinet nominees await confirmation, bogged down in the Senate. Many other appointed positions remain unfilled, a situation investors were reminded of last week when Daniel Tarullo announced his intention to step down from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, creating a third unfilled opening. Rather than get to work on these appointments or other parts of his agenda, Trump has fought with Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's clothing line and attacked the credibility of federal judges.

How much policy can we realistically expect from this administration? The stock market, led by bank and financial stocks, has soared to new highs on the prospect for tax cuts, fiscal stimulus and deregulation. Yet as we come up to the one-month mark of this administration, we've seen executive orders related to trade and immigration but nothing on this core stimulative economic platform.

The window for enacting the new president's agenda may be short. The Flynn resignation raises the prospect that Congress could be more consumed by hearings related to Russia than the sausage-making of legislation. If the president's already-low approval rating continues to sink, it may embolden Republican members of Congress to stand up to him, or at least to act more independently. The special election in Tom Price's Georgia 6th Congressional District has been set for April 18. Should Democrats pull an upset there, it could scare House Republicans in districts with similar demographics.

Oroville gives Trump an opportunity to use the news cycle to regain control of the narrative and his agenda. He'd be wise to take it.

(Corrects spelling of Rahm Emanuel's name in first paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Conor Sen at

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