President-elect Donald Trump has a problem. He’s remarkably unpopular for a new president, so he needs to win over more voters in order to be reelected. At the same time, he needs to keep a conservative coalition that wants to enact sweeping and controversial policy changes united behind him.
In recent days, we’ve started to get a sense of how he may try to pull off both.
First, Trump will use the bully pulpit — through Twitter, through the media, and through his own staged events — to preserve his brand. He’ll market himself as a defender of American jobs (with showy stunts like the Carrier deal and his dubious claim to have saved Ford jobs). And he’ll make clear that he’s still not one of the political elites, because he’ll keep flouting their rules of decorum and “telling it like it is” (by getting into feuds with media outlets, coastal elites, the cast of Hamilton, and so on).
But secondly, Trump has also been handing out key domestic policymaking jobs to staunch conservatives, effectively empowering them to carry out a hard-right agenda in a way that keeps the GOP base satisfied — but with a layer of removal from Trump personally.
The job plank of this strategy could well make Trump quite popular — because fighting for American jobs (or being seen as fighting for them) is, unsurprisingly, quite popular. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of voters said the Carrier deal made them view Trump more favorably. Conservatives worried about crony capitalism and government interference in the free market might squirm, but if Trump continues to make high-profile deals (or pick-high profile fights) that he claims are keeping good jobs in the US, that’s good politics for him.
Meanwhile, the conservative agenda Trump’s Cabinet appointees appear likely to implement on issues like education, health care, and the environment is not particularly popular among the general public. But the key is that much of this agenda can theoretically be carried out by lower-profile Cabinet secretaries without much involvement from Trump himself.
Indeed, Trump’s own stunts could well overshadow this conservative agenda if he sucks up all the media oxygen with whatever else he’s doing that day. Whether it’s job-saving stunts of dubious veracity or new Twitter fights, the president may be such a compelling ratings draw that any story or controversy involving him personally will get far more attention than stories about Cabinet secretaries, regulations, or policy (just as coverage of issues was drowned out during the campaign). But the most invested members of the conservative coalition will be well aware of what’s happening, and they’ll be thrilled with it.
Trump often feigns open-mindedness or moderation before giving jobs to hard-right conservatives
This “Trump two-step,” as the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer put it, most recently occurred in the transition’s decisions about climate change policy. On Monday, Trump met with Al Gore at Trump Tower. The surprising meeting, which came not too long after Trump proclaimed he had “an open mind” on climate change while meeting with the New York Times, was irresistible to the press, which covered it all day. Could the famously unpredictable Trump be ready to defy the conservative base on the environment?
Just two days later, it became clear the answer was no. On Wednesday, word leaked out that Trump had chosen Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency administrator — the governnent’s most important environmental post. Pruitt does not believe climate change is a serious problem and has been a hard-line opponent of “virtually every major federal regulation around climate and air pollution that Obama’s EPA has put forward,” as Brad Plumer writes.
Pruitt is just the latest solid conservative to get a domestic Cabinet appointment. Trump picked Elaine Chao, who ran George W. Bush’s Labor Department, which was infamous for strongly defending business interests over unions, for secretary of transportation. Furthermore, Trump chose Betsy DeVos, a longtime school vouchers activist, for secretary of education — suggesting the huge, ambitious voucher plan he released during the campaign but rarely talked about might be a major administration priority.
Furthermore, some of these appointees have taken positions in their issue areas that are directly at odds with some of Trump’s populist rhetoric during the campaign. Trump said in July, for instance, that “the minimum wage has to go up” — but on Thursday, the transition team announced that Trump had chosen a vocal critic of minimum wage increases, CEO Andy Puzder, for secretary of labor.
Perhaps most notable of all is Trump’s choice of Tom Price for health and human services secretary. Though Trump promised that he would not cut Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid benefits, Price is a big supporter of enormous changes to entitlement programs, including turning Medicare into a voucher program and Medicaid into a fully block-granted program, as David Dayen writes. Price said in 2015 that he wants to make big changes to Social Security too. If Trump was serious about his pledge not to cut entitlements, it’s hard to understand why he would have picked Price for this job.
The Cabinet could return to prominence under the Trump administration
Now, it’s still far too early to know how the Trump administration will end up functioning in practice. But one major question for any new team is how much policymaking and decision-making authority ends up being centralized in the White House, and how much ends up being delegated to the Cabinet. The trend in recent years, especially under President Obama, has been for more and more power to accrue to the White House staff at the Cabinet’s expense.
But there’s no guarantee that will continue under Trump, who hasn’t displayed all that much interest in the ins and outs of minor policy decisions. The president-elect has been notably slower to fill key White House jobs compared with Cabinet posts. And rather than empowering one chief of staff to run the show and enforce the president’s wishes, he’s divided power between the nominal chief Reince Priebus and his “chief strategist” Steve Bannon — a structure that’s hardly a recipe for efficient management and has reportedly caused serious tensions already. (Neither Bannon or Priebus has any experience working in government.)
So it’s quite possible that Trump will end up with a relatively weak or divided White House staff. And while Trump obviously can’t outsource all his policy decisions to the Cabinet — he will have to decide whether to sign bills that Congress passes into law, for instance — it does seem that the secretaries could get a lot of leeway to run their own shops as they see fit, while the Trump Show gets all the media attention. And in the cases of Pruitt, DeVos, Chao, and Price, that would mean governing as staunch conservatives.
Alternatively, it’s also possible that the Trump White House could get it together and exert a firm hand on the Cabinet. Bannon says he has big dreams of a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.” And the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reports that Joe Hagin, who served as deputy chief of staff for seven and a half years in George W. Bush’s White House, may be appointed to that same post again under Trump — which would add a whole lot of governmental and bureaucratic experience to a White House team that sorely lacks it for the moment.
Regardless of how it’s carried out, though, the combination of a focus on apparent job-saving initiatives from the Oval Office with a lower-profile conservative policy agenda implemented through the Cabinet seems to be a potent political one. And Democrats will have to figure out how they can elevate the latter, less popular agenda to attention — without getting drowned out by Trump’s never-ending reality show.