The President Needs a “Win”

By Jeffrey Albertson, Jr/16 June 2017

There’s no doubt that President Donald Trump needs a win—right now. During his campaign, Trump boasted on several occasions that he’d have such great success that the American people would get “so sick and tired of winning.” At his inauguration, Trump had a lower approval rating than any of his last three predecessors. At that time, he stood at 41.8%—just over 20 point lower than George W. Bush’s rating at the 2001 inauguration. To provide context, W. Bush’s transition was mired by legal proceedings at the Federal and State levels surrounding the 2000 presidential election, in which Gore won the popular and Bush the electoral college. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Bush v. Gore [531 U.S. 98 (2000)] that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause had been violated and in turn, Bush won Florida’s 25 electoral votes by just 537 popular votes. Since Trump failed to secure the popular vote, he falsely claimed that the 2.8 million votes had been cast by illegal immigrants. Nonetheless, this became an early obsession leading to the President handing out maps of his “historic electoral victory.”

Trump campaigned on healthcare and tax reform, increased defense spending, increasing the effort against terrorism abroad, and repairing crumbling infrastructure. All red meat for his base and the latter, a goodwill gesture to Democrats. The administration’s legislative agenda has all but ground to a halt following the fumbled Obamacare repeal and replace roll-out, Muslim Travel Ban now blocked by the courts, and a meager tax reform plan. The President has instead opted for executive orders and memos, but those don’t carry the success of passed legislation. When the House of Representatives did pass a healthcare bill, it was heralded as a major success even though the Senate had yet to consider that bill. The President and House Republicans had a ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden, even though the Senate decided to draft its own plan, which critics argue has been kept behind closed doors. While once celebrated as “great”, just this week in a meeting with Republican Senator, Trump called the House plan “mean” and argued for more legislative generosity.

Doubtless, Trump needs a win. Executive orders and memos won’t do. Nor will pointless legislative ceremonies for partially passed bills.  Incessantly claiming every negative episode of press coverage as “fake news” won’t do it either. Blaming the Democratic Party as obstructionists is insufficient, since the GOP controls the Executive and Legislative branches.

Instead of being significantly submerged in Steven Bannon’s faux-nationalism, Twitter rants, and constant efforts to place blame in irrelevant places, the President should focus on bipartisanship issues to regain lost political capital. The President stated in his 16-minute inaugural address that the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Pushing for tax cuts that benefits the highest-income 0.1 percent of taxpayers with millions of dollars and healthcare reform that strips coverage from 14 to 23 million people over the next decade is not the way.

Instead, Trump would be better served to focus on positions in which bipartisanship is possible and Democrats would be willing to participate legislatively. Focus not on dismantling the so-called “administrative state,” but allow it to benefit the American people by keeping the National Parks open, water and air quality in check, regulating workplace safety and public television and radio on the air. Two areas of possible cooperation are infrastructure investment and Social Security pay increases, both issues Trump campaigned in support for, but has seemed to have forgotten. Trump’s $1 Trillion infrastructure plan seems to focus, at least initially, on busting air traffic controllers away from the Federal Aviation Administration and less on roads, bridges, mass transit, airports, sewers, and dams. A major opportunity for development is expansion of high-speed internet service to greatly under served rural areas. The absence of high-speed internet service restricts free enterprise, small business, and corporate development. Rural counties with more households connected to high-speed internet had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those lacking it. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s Infrastructure scores a D+, leaving significant room for improvement.

Another area of support is an increase in Social Security’s cost of living adjustment or COLA. Last year, beneficiaries of the Old-Age, Survivors, Disability (OASDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs received a meager .03% increase. As a result of the historically low COLA, monthly benefit payments only increased by several dollars. The last significant increases were in 2008 at 5.8% and 3.6% in 2011. The years 2009, 2010, and 2015 had no increase. Contrary to Trump’s pledge to not cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits, the released budget called “A New Foundation for American Greatness” would negatively impact those programs. “The administration proposes reducing spending on Medicaid programs by more than $600 billion over the next decade, a massive cut that appears to go on top of a $839 billion cut to Medicaid.” The Disability Insurance program is under review to be cut by $64 billion. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney drew significant criticism when he stated the disability program is not part of Social Security and that the President only promised to protect retirement benefits, even though the disability program is funded by deductions payroll taxes. Other proposed cuts include $193 billion to the SNAP-food stamp program over the next decade, even though they would hit the region that delivered Trump the presidency—the rustbelt—the hardest. Needless to say, blue-collar whites are a significant component of those benefiting from the income support programs Trump is targeting.

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Instead of focusing on gutting safety net programs that benefit millions of working class Americans, the administration should focus on increasing their solvency and effectiveness. Certainly, some reforms are necessary to the disability insurance program, but not widespread benefit reduction. At minimum, increased vocational rehabilitation training is a start along with reforms to the definition of impairments that determine disability.  However, the administration must accept that not every recipient of that program is the “stereotypical freeloader” or “lazy.” Quite often beneficiaries of the disability program have nowhere else to turn for employment. Too much attention is directed at resolving the solvency of the disability program’s trust fund, while little attention is directed at the crux of the problem that a record number of Americans receive benefit payments for disability from the SSI and DI programs. Simply focusing on the program’s solvency and not on the reason why people have sought disability payments due to long term unemployment, would be a fool’s errand.

On infrastructure development, the administration should focus on job creation, especially given that most of those job type do not require college degrees and they pay above-average wages, offering a path to economic mobility. The current infrastructure plan calls for a heavily reliance on private funding, which only minimal investment from the Federal government. “Private investment works only where there is quick money to be made; it does nothing for those in under served and low-income areas.

Doubtless, the Trump Administration and the Democratic Party would find an agreement in infrastructure and income security programs that are equitable, but failure to reach a bipartisan agreement on these issues, may sever the only possible bridge between Trump and the Democrats. Instead of dabbling in the infertile soil of right-wing policy prescriptions, the President should seek to resolve issues where bipartisan support is paramount, the ground there is much more fruitful.

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