Robert Robb: After the State of the Union, will voters begin to distinguish between the Trump agenda and Donald Trump the politician?
The State of the Union address brought into sharp relief a key political question: Will voters begin to distinguish between the Trump agenda and Donald Trump the politician?
Trump the politician ain’t doing so hot.
Unusual for a newbie president, Trump’s approval rating started low and has stayed there, for those who still believe in the polls.
In special elections, Trump has been a turnout machine … for Democrats.
Trump the politician is an erratic, divisive and polarizing figure. Even for many who are in general agreement with his policies, his behavior sullies the office.
And Trump the politician seems to be a treasure chest of salacious revelations, past and current, which feed a hungry oppositional media.
But Trump’s agenda is doing really well
The Trump agenda, on the other hand, is doing quite well.
Trump has shown an unusual resolve in executing what he said he would do during the campaign.
He said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, and he did. He said he would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and he did.
Trump said that he would appoint conservative judges, and he has. He said that he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and, unlike a string of previous presidents from both parties who made the same vow but then reneged, he is actually doing so.
Trump said that he would repeal Obamacare. That didn’t happen but one of Obamacare’s main pillars, the individual mandate, was washed away. And the Trump administration is expanding the ability to purchase policies that escape Obamacare’s expensive requirements to the extent the law allows.
Trump is playing political hardball to get the funding to build the wall on the Southern border that was a central feature of his campaign.
Maybe Trump really is a conservative
I was among those who doubted the sincerity of Trump’s professed commitment to conservative principles on the campaign trail. That’s become a difficult skepticism to sustain. I don’t know if Trump fully understands conservative principles, much less the extent of his commitment to them. But he has certainly chosen to play a conservative in the White House.
In addition to conservative judges, he has appointed staunch conservatives to his cabinet. That includes posts – such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration – where even conservative presidents tend to flinch with appointees that won’t set the hair of liberals and activists on fire. Trump set the hair ablaze.
The State of the Union address was unblinkingly conservative. That was particularly striking on cultural issues. Trump was for the right to bear arms and religious liberty. He supports soldiers, cops and border agents. And standing during the national anthem.
The importance of these cultural issues to Middle Americans, and the resentment of identity and grievance politics, is underappreciated among the punditry.
The central focus of the Trump agenda, however, is the economy. Trump gets insufficient credit for the extent to which his deregulation moves have revived entrepreneurial spirits. The regulatory uncertainty of the Obama years was a drag on the recovery. Early in the Trump administration, it became clear that, at a minimum, things weren’t going to get worse.
How will voters judge the GOP in 2018?
And then there is the tax cut. The State of the Union address was probably the first time many Americans heard a sustained explanation of what was actually in it and how it would benefit them.
Most workers will see just modest increases from the forthcoming changes in withholding schedules. The real payoff for individuals is in the doubling of the child tax credit, which won’t become manifest until April 2019.
However, increasing after-tax returns on business investment by 14 percent, as the tax cut does, will unleash economic activity that will still be reverberating by the time of the 2018 election. There’s a good chance swing voters will perceive that their prospects are brighter as a result.
DEBATE: How much did Trump’s first State of the Union matter?
The 2018 election is supposed to be bloodbath for Republicans. The punditry has pretty much already concluded that Democrats will take control of the House. And, despite what should be long odds, even think capturing the Senate is possible.
If the 2018 election turns out to be a referendum on Trump the politician, the predicted bloodbath is likely.
If, however, it becomes a referendum on the Trump agenda, the election of 2018 may end up being almost as much of a surprise as the election of 2016.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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