White House

A Simple Theory of Trumpian Policy Effectiveness

Two things must be present for the president to achieve success.

The stars align.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

While he was unleashing a generalized media meltdown this week with his back-and-forth-and-back on whether neo-Nazis are really so bad or not, President Donald Trump also revoked an executive order signed by his predecessor that had ordered federal agencies to take rising sea levels caused by climate change into account when making infrastructure investments. 1

It was a reminder, amid the chaos in and around the White House and inaction in Congress, that the president still has the power to change government policy. But Scott L. Shapiro and Andrea P. Clark, attorneys and flood-policy experts at the California law firm Downey Brand, wondered Tuesday whether the impact of Barack Obama's Executive Order 13690 could really be excised that easily. As they wrote in their "The Levee Was Dry" blog: 2

In other words, will the spirit of 13690 live on, even without the force of law, but causing Federal employees to set a more robust standard for projects to be built with Federal funds?

Only time will tell the answer to this question, and we are sure not every agency will think alike. But this is a little bit like saying, don’t think about a pink elephant. Once you say that, it is hard to not think about the elephant.

This fits with a simple theory of Trump's policy impact that I've been mulling. 3 The president came into office with an agenda composed mostly on the fly during campaign speeches and television appearances, and very few people with actual policy expertise advising him. Since then, he has shown few signs of trying to learn more about policy himself, and made only fitful progress in building a robust team of experts to help him out.

This has made it hard to accomplish much! But the Trump administration has gotten a few significant things done nonetheless. They've been characterized by two key conditions:

  1. Trump has a coherent, consistent view on the topic.
  2. There's a critical mass of expert people, preferably but not necessarily in government, who agree with him.

The most obvious case is immigration enforcement within the U.S.:

  1. Trump wanted it to be much stricter.
  2. A lot of the experts on immigration enforcement -- that is, the people who work at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- agreed with him.

The result was a sharp increase in immigration arrests, and what my Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson last month called "arguably the most successful element of Trump's otherwise woeful first six months in office." Wilkinson wasn't endorsing the crackdown, and neither do I, but it's a clear case of policy effectiveness: Trump said he was going to do something, and he did.

This was of course made much easier by the fact that no laws or even regulations had to be changed to enable this crackdown. As then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in response to congressional criticism in April, ICE was just enforcing the law as written, and "if lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws." Which they have not done.

Still, the theory seems to hold even when rule making and/or legislative action are required. Consider the confirmation and approval of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice:

  1. Trump wanted to appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court.
  2. The entire Republican establishment wanted that, too.

Contrast these two successes with perhaps Trump's two biggest policy failures so far: his bungled partial ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries and the failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In the first case, Trump had called in December 2015 for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," an impractical and almost certainly unconstitutional proposal that played well with some voters but had zero expert support. As Trump took office, a few aides crafted a narrower ban on travel from seven countries but did so in such slipshod fashion (they weren't experts) that federal courts almost immediately halted its enforcement. The Supreme Court did eventually allow a much-scaled-back visa moratorium to go into effect pending a future ruling, but it doesn't really amount to much and may still be overturned. I guess you could argue that Trump succeeded in getting lots of attention paid to the topic, but in an area where the law grants the president great freedom to set policy unilaterally, he has proved remarkably inept at actually setting policy.

On health care, Trump said he wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with "something terrific," but he never developed anything approaching a coherent replacement plan, apart from occasional calls to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, had been voting to repeal the ACA for years but not thinking much about what should come in its place. And while there are lots of conservative health-care experts with ideas for changing how health insurance works in the U.S., there certainly wasn't a consensus among them on how to replace the ACA with something that many voters would recognize as "terrific." So yes, an ACA replacement did pass the House and came close in the Senate, and the White House keeps insisting that the effort isn't dead yet, but Trump's failure to deliver on his promise of health-care improvement might become even more apparent if he signed one of these bills into law.

Where do things stand on other issues? On environmental protection, Trump wants to roll back restrictions on mining and oil and gas drilling, and there are a bunch of experts with ties to the mining and oil and gas industries working in and with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior who want that, too, so it has been happening. That's policy effectiveness, like it or not. Efforts in other agencies to at least roll back late-Obama-era regulations are also meeting with success, in part because there are ready-made constituencies of industry experts (also known as lobbyists) to help push the changes through. Then there are cases like the change in floodplain policy described at the beginning of this column. It doesn't seem to have much of an expert constituency; the Obama order applied only to federally funded projects, and insurers and fiscal conservatives as well as environmentalists rallied to support it. And it seems unlikely that federal bureaucrats charged with assessing the flood risks of projects will now start completely ignoring the possibility of sea-level increases. So even though the Obama order has been revoked, its aim may live on.

On trade, Trump has a long-standing suspicion of free-trade agreements and has a desire to protect manufacturing in the U.S., and there is a small but active group of experts who have espoused similar views. Presidents also have significant leeway to make decisions on trade without consulting Congress. So you'd think we would see tangible policy changes on this front, and maybe we will soon. But the differing interests of different manufacturing industries are complicating such efforts. For example, steelmakers want the administration to restrict imports on national security grounds, but manufacturers that use steel are opposed. It may be that there just aren't enough experts who agree on what exactly needs to be done for much of consequence to happen.

With taxes, there are lots of experts who favor reforms to reduce rates, get rid of deductions, and give corporations fewer incentives to move overseas or park earnings there, among other things. Trump has talked frequently about corporate tax issues, but he's never expressed anything like a coherent philosophy of tax reform. He does favor tax cuts, though, and so do most Republicans in Washington. So something simple could well get done.

That seems less likely with Trump's infrastructure plans. There's lots of expert support for spending more on infrastructure, but there's little consensus on how to go about it and no clear direction or even sustained interest (remember, Tuesday's infamous news conference was supposed to be about infrastructure) from the president. With the wall along the Mexican border, it's the other way around: Trump has been clear and consistent about wanting a big one, but no one with expertise in stemming illegal border crossings seems to share his view.

On foreign and military policy, both conditions for effectiveness seem to have gone missing. On the campaign trail, Trump at times seemed to espouse a coherent philosophy of reduced interventionism, but he hasn't stuck with that at all since taking office -- at least not verbally -- and his statements are increasingly being ignored and even countermanded by the military, diplomats, members of Congress, foreign leaders and his own vice president. No coherent policy view plus no expert support: not a powerful combination.

One thing that Trump has been getting more consistent about lately is his signaling that he is OK with the increased activity and visibility of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups. I don't think he has significant support from law enforcement experts in this. Let's hope he doesn't get any.

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

  1. This revocation was tacked on at the end of a new executive order that my fellow Bloomberg View columnist Cass Sunstein has mostly good things to say about.

  2. Described by its authors as a "flood risk and floodplain management blog."

  3. Here's a nice Jonathan Bernstein column on a venerable and somewhat more complicated theory of presidential power from political scientist Richard Neustadt.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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