Faculty Journal Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2016

Opportunity Knocks: The Terrain of a Trump Presidency

Andrew J. Polsky Ruth and Harold Newman Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Hunter College, and Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center

On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will be sworn into office as the next president of the United States. Like each of his predecessors, he will face a political context—an opportunity structure—that requires certain actions, makes some moves possible, and effectively precludes others. In some policy domains, he will enjoy broad discretion; in others, the options will be very limited. Whether he can achieve the objectives he sets will depend on how well he grasps this opportunity structure. Just as important, the political context in which a president operates is a dynamic one, with the possibilities evolving over the course of four years. The changing shape of the opportunity structure, moreover, is driven in part by the president’s own actions: what he does in, say, his first few months will open up new possibilities or foreclose options. We might liken the task of a president trying to negotiate the political environment to that of a riverboat captain navigating a fast-moving river whose course changes constantly. The charts help, but only so much; on every trip, the sandbars move, the water conceals new hidden obstacles, and other boats may suddenly cross your bow.[1]

It would be risky to try to predict how Mr. Trump will respond to his context. Most presidents have a political track record that expresses certain principles and commitments. They generally hew to these in their campaign for the White House and deliver once in the Oval Office. Scholars have found that previous presidents have fulfilled a high percentage of their campaign promises.[2] But we cannot count on this pattern continuing for Donald Trump. With no prior public service, he lacks a legislative voting record or a history of executive decisions. During his campaign, he often espoused inconsistent and even contradictory policy positions, much to the chagrin of his critics. Even many of his supporters have said they do not expect him to make good on some of his more extreme pronouncements. He thus enters office less bound by his past than perhaps any president, at least any since Dwight Eisenhower (who also had never run for office before seeking the White House).

Mr. Trump’s lack of political experience and his erratic campaign policy statements raise questions about whether he will recognize and respect the constraints imposed by his environment. His most ardent supporters hope not: they see him as a disruptive force, willing to overturn any and all conventions. Others who backed him with reservations and those who opposed him because they saw him as dangerous hope instead that he will be tamed by the office, by the formal and informal limits on presidential power, and by the broad ensemble of domestic and international institutions in which the presidency is situated. We hold our collective breath, whether in expectation or dread.

Rather than offer predictions, then, I will suggest some ways in which the opportunity structure of the Trump presidency will shape what he can and cannot do. Or, to put it more precisely, I will point to domains that invite action likely to yield the policy and political results that he seeks and others where the political costs may be prohibitive. (This assumes, I hasten to add, that Mr. Trump will approach the presidency with an eye toward accomplishing policy goals and winning reelection in 2020, much as his predecessors have been guided by these considerations – in other words, that he doesn’t intend to destroy the system in which he now holds the most powerful position.) Given the limited length of this essay, I can only touch on a few areas, though a domain-specific and contingent contextual framework can be extended to others.  I also will speculate on how certain early moves by President Trump actions may alter the possibilities for what he may do later.

Low-Hanging and Poisonous Legislative Fruit

Only rarely has a Republican president in the modern era enjoyed unified party control of Congress (Dwight Eisenhower in his first two years; George W. Bush for four years beginning in 2003). Democrats can filibuster bills in the Senate, but the budget reconciliation process they used to pass Obamacare can be exploited by a GOP Senate majority to advance many measures. Thus, Donald Trump will find himself at the outset in an enviable position in his dealings with Congress. This represents both an opportunity and a trap.

On one side, he can choose to work closely with his co-partisans to enact elements of a conventional conservative agenda. Republicans in Congress are relatively homogeneous in ideological terms; they are also more conservative across the board than are Democrats. This suggests GOP lawmakers will be able to unite behind conservative policy measures in areas such as tax policy. Tax cuts have long been a GOP mainstay, and Mr. Trump can slash taxes with impunity, even taxes paid only by the very wealthiest Americans. No one suffers from tax cuts in the short run unless the cuts are tied to spending reductions, so political opposition would be minimal and largely symbolic. Although Republicans have objected to increasing the national debt under President Obama, historically they don’t worry about deficits when one of their own is in the White House. (As Dick Cheney put it when defending the 2001 Bush tax cut, “Deficits don’t matter.”)

Alternatively, Mr. Trump might reach out to Democrats on measures that they could not persuade Republicans to support so long as there was a Democrat in the Oval Office. A major stimulus package in the form of an infrastructure initiative, with resources directed at both Republican and Democratic constituencies, would attract support across party lines and appeal to the working-class white electorate that formed a key part of the Trump electoral coalition. A combination of tax cuts and massive infrastructure spending would provide a dramatic short-term economic stimulus, too, boosting President Trump’s popularity. That boost in turn becomes usable political capital. (The long-term effect of fiscal stimulus is another matter, and one far more difficult to forecast because so many factors come into play.)

Some legislative proposals, however, could generate enormous opposition. Republican conservatives have spoken of “entitlement reform,” a euphemism for shrinking popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare. If Mr. Trump signs on to such an agenda, he invites a catastrophic loss of popular support. George W. Bush pushed the privatization of Social Security after his reelection in 2004, confident that he had earned political capital that he could spend pursuing a policy initiative that appealed only to conservative elites. His effort earned him a political drubbing that marked the effective end of his domestic policy agenda.[3] For Mr. Trump, who disavowed cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare during his campaign, an embrace of major reductions in Medicare coverage would be a reckless step. Already his critics are savaging him for even entertaining the possibility. It remains to be seen whether he has the political savvy to avoid such legislative overreach.

Legislative initiatives can also alienate a president’s co-partisans in Congress. In opposing various trade accords during his campaign, Mr. Trump took a stand at odds with the prevailing free-trade orthodoxy of American governing elites for the past two decades. This includes congressional Republicans who represent areas that have benefitted from the reduction of trade barriers. If the president-elect tries to make good on threats to raise tariffs, GOP lawmakers have already signaled they will not cooperate. They would be emboldened thereafter to pressure the president not to stray from conventional Republican legislative priorities.

Finally, some legislative action is politically obligatory, though the incoming president has discretion when it comes to specifics. Like every other Republican who sought the nomination, Mr. Trump promised to end Obamacare and replace it with…something. Since the election, he has spoken as well of his desire to retain popular features of the program. He has room to maneuver when it comes to the details, but he must act early in his administration, and the congressional Republicans will surely insist on eliminating some features of the program such as penalties for those who decline to purchase coverage. Nearly every Republican alternative will cause people to lose their health insurance, and media coverage will focus on those who are left without resources to pay for needed care. It will be difficult for the man in the White House to avoid the blame.

Staffing the Executive Branch

Populating the upper levels of the executive branch is one of the first required actions for an incoming president – and one with far-reaching consequences. Cabinet and sub-cabinet personnel can alter the trajectory of an agency through their exercise of discretionary authority. If senior officials are hostile to government regulation, for example, they can delay rule enforcement, redirect funding, refuse to fill vacancies, and more. Ronald Reagan effectively undermined environmental and civil rights enforcement by placing anti-regulatory zealots in key positions. Reagan also obstructed the work of the Department of Education, an agency he had threatened to abolish, by delaying the appointment of a new Secretary of Education. [4]

Mr. Trump’s early choices for senior posts lean well to the right. For example, Ben Carson, nominated to head Housing and Urban Development, voiced skepticism during his own presidential bid about an Obama administration effort to reduce residential segregation through aggressive fair housing enforcement. Similarly, Betsy DeVos would bring to the Department of Education a long record of support for school choice. And when it comes to the future of the Affordable Care Act, the president will be advised by Representative Tom Price, a longtime opponent of Obamacare who has been tabbed to run Health and Human Services.

Although the president-elect may have identified faithful agents of his agenda, he will pay a political price if his appointees pursue policies that generate a visible negative impact that stirs public indignation. Immigration enforcement stands out as a likely flash point. If the administration steps up deportation efforts, the media will recount stories of families torn apart and people forcibly returned to places ravaged by civil strife. We can also anticipate organized protest in communities with large immigrant populations and on college campuses, as the next step after universities declare themselves sanctuaries. All of this would bode ill for cooperation with Democrats on other matters. On the other hand, easing financial regulation, though increasing the risk of another bank crisis in the long run, would be less likely to cause immediate economic harm and thus arouse less political pushback.

Judicial Nominations

Senate Republicans refused to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Antonin Scalia, giving Mr. Trump the opportunity to nominate a successor. He has made plain his intention to pick someone in Scalia’s mold. Although Democrats may thwart the president on his first selection, eventually he will prevail, restoring the conservative tilt to the Court on hot-button issues such as gun control, voting rights, and abortion. The more critical question is whether another opening will occur and whether it will be created by the departure of one on the more liberal justices. This would create the opportunity to establish a durable conservative majority.

Notwithstanding the importance of Supreme Court nominations, a president can shape the judicial branch just as profoundly through appointments to lower federal courts. These have a broader impact than we appreciate: far more cases are heard and decided in the lower courts than in the Supreme Court. During the Obama years, Senate Republicans filled judicial vacancies slowly, often declining to hold hearings to consider nominees. The opportunity for President Trump to put his imprint on the judiciary goes far beyond the Supreme Court opening that has been the subject of so much discussion during the campaign.

Commander in Chief Leading Inconclusive Wars

Candidate Donald Trump voiced frustration, not policy, when he spoke of the recent American use of force. Early on, during the Republican primaries, he pledged that he would win so much Americans would get “bored” of winning. The sentiment reflected his reading of the public mood: despite American military supremacy, the United States has not been able to achieve its political goal when it goes to war. Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the limits of the nation’s military reach—U.S. forces can topple regimes but not achieve political stability for the successor governments we back. Mr. Trump’s later attacks on Barack Obama for failing to secure a status of forces agreement that would have permitted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq or preventing the rise of ISIS likewise capture popular frustration that the world does not bend before American might. That he could not articulate a different approach to the Syrian civil war or ISIS during the presidential debates underscores the point that he used his campaign as a vehicle to vent rather than point in a new direction.

As president, his conventional options will be limited. George W. Bush bungled nation-building so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan that no president could sell that approach today. Recognizing that Americans were war weary, his successor spoke of nation-building at home and extricated the United States from the two wars he inherited. Barack Obama received little credit, however, because persistent sectarianism in Iraq and the eruption of civil war in Syria created an opening that ISIS exploited. Obama refused to intervene on the ground in either country, convinced that no positive result could be achieved. Unfortunately, non-intervention doesn’t inoculate us against tragedy, either. We have witnessed mounting civilian casualties at the hands of Assad’s forces in Syria, the failure to cultivate a viable alternative to his regime, and the strengthening of ISIS. Now a very costly military campaign will be needed to defeat it, and its acolytes and affiliates will surely launch occasional spectacular attacks abroad. Even if ISIS loses its territorial hold, moreover, the organization (or a successor entity) can continue to wage violent attacks, shielded by a Sunni population squeezed between Assad on one side and a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Faced with only a poor set of choices, most presidents would prefer to limit the political downside that comes with protracted military intervention. There are signs Mr. Trump wants to avoid the kind of military entanglements that have confounded his recent predecessors. At a recent post-election rally in North Carolina, he insisted that he would set a high bar before approving the use of force: the United States would “stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about.” Coupled with his desire to expand and modernize the military, his policy seems to be one of “preemptive intimidation” – he expects to overawe potential adversaries with the threat of overwhelming force.

Nothing in the recent past suggests that Mr. Trump’s reliance on military bluster would have the desired effect, so we should acknowledge the real possibility that he might rebel against the constraints and pursue a more reckless course. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a president has the authority and means to exercise agency on a broad scale—to make consequential decisions that another actor in the same position might not. In the same speech to his supporters, he promised a quick victory over terrorists.  His initial selection of hardliners for his national security team, including retired senior officers such as Michael Flynn for National Security Advisor and James N. Mattis as defense secretary , raise the concern that he will be surrounded by advisors who may encourage his impulse to act unpredictably. When Richard Nixon entered the White House at the height of the Vietnam War, he wanted to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that he would not be bound to respect the limits the Johnson administration had set on American forces. The resulting incursion into Cambodia in spring 1970 set in motion a chain of events that destabilized that country, among other unhappy effects.[5] Bad as things may be in the Middle East, an impatient and inexperienced American president could easily do things to make matters much worse.

Conclusion: Navigating the River

I’ll conclude by returning briefly to the riverboat captain metaphor. To find the way safely poses a challenge even for the experienced navigator.[6] When there’s a novice on the bridge, well, the passengers had best cross their fingers and hold their breath. Sometimes it works. Dwight Eisenhower proved a surprisingly adroit captain, though even he ran aground from time to time. We can hope things will turn out as well for Donald Trump and his passengers—not just the American people but the rest of the world, too. Whether or not we like it, we’ve all just purchased a non-refundable ticket and the boat is about to leave the dock.

The author wishes to thank Michael Lee, Diana Conchado, Michael Benediktsson, Sarah Chinn, and Shyama Venkateswar for their comments on the initial version of this essay.

[1] For a fuller discussion of this approach to the opportunity structure of presidential leadership, see Andrew J. Polsky, “Shifting Currents:  Dwight Eisenhower and the Dynamic of Presidential Opportunity Structure,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 45 (1) (March 2015):  91-109.

[2] For a nuanced analysis, see Andrew W. Barrett and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, “Presidential Success on the Substance of Legislation,” Political Research Quarterly 60 (1) (March 2007): 100-112.

[3] Jean Edward Smith, Bush (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 425-26.

[4] Daniel M. Cook and Andrew J. Polsky, “Political Time Reconsidered:  Unbuilding and Rebuilding the State under the Reagan Administration,” American Politics Research 33 (4) (July 2005):  577-605.

[5] Andrew J. Polsky, Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 255-60.

[6] Polsky, “Shifting Currents,” 107.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Andrew Polsky is the Ruth and Harold Newman Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Hunter College, and Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He served as the editor of the political science journal Polity from 2005 to 2010. In addition to a number of scholarly articles, he is the author of two books, Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War (2012) and The Rise of the Therapeutic State (1991).