President Donald Trump and his aides keep insisting that his presidency has already yielded progress on a historic scale. “I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done,” Trump said at a press conference last week.
Actually, Trump’s immediate predecessor achieved a lot more. That’s partly because President Barack Obama took office amid a real crisis, as opposed to the fake one Trump keeps insisting he faces. But it’s also because the two men approached their campaigns, and now their presidencies, so differently.
In particular, Trump has no apparent patience for the boring, slow work of politics ― like developing detailed policy plans, or working them out with congressional leaders. And without that kind of unglamorous work, getting stuff done turns out to be awfully difficult.
Consider the way the two presidents have approached a signature issue they have in common: infrastructure.
Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, And Why It’s Slipping
Trump talked about infrastructure constantly on the campaign trail, vowing to build roads, trains, and airports. As a brash outsider, Trump promised, he could force such a program through Congress. And as a real estate developer, he insisted he was uniquely qualified to design and implement what was basically a huge construction program.
But it wasn’t until two weeks before Election Day that Trump finally released a proposal with some policy details. And it didn’t line up that closely with what he’d been describing on the campaign trail. His previous rhetoric had made it sound like Trump wanted to be another FDR, borrowing massive amounts of money in order to finance a building binge that would put people back to work. The actual Trump plan turned out to be something very different: A series of tax breaks to make large infrastructure projects more profitable for businesses.
In a December interview with The New York Times, Trump confessed that he was still figuring out exactly what he wanted to do ― and that he hadn’t realized FDR-style infrastructure building might alienate conservatives. “That’s not a very Republican thing ― I didn’t even know that, frankly.”
Soon, administration officials began hinting that infrastructure might not be a first 100 days program, as Trump had promised. And since then, the whole idea has slipped farther and farther down on the political agenda. Trump still mentions it in public appearances, but the two legislative leaders he needs to get an infrastructure bill through Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made clear they are ambivalent, at best, about the whole project. If they are coordinating closely behind the scenes, they are keeping it a very good secret.
Obama’s Infrastructure Plan ― And Why It Became Law
This is not how things transpired eight years ago, when Obama took office. And one reason is that he didn’t wait so long before drawing up plans. During the presidential campaign, he developed and then ran on a detailed policy agenda, including an infrastructure proposal. The initial version was small. But the rapidly deteriorating economy convinced Obama and his aides they needed something much bigger. And, once the campaign was over, they began hashing out how to do that.
“We started working on Wednesday morning after the election,” said economist Jason Furman, who advised Obama during the campaign and then in the White House. Over the following month, Obama’s economic team put together a 57-page memo on the economic crisis, including a series of options for how the federal government could address it. Obama went through it and, in December, he decided on the rough shape and size of what he wanted to propose, including about $350 billion for infrastructure.
And the work didn’t stop there. “It was the biggest subject of the transition for the economic team,” recalled University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, who also served in the Obama campaign and the administration. “As transition moved [from Chicago] to Washington, there were scores of meetings over all various aspects of the stimulus pretty much every day. Each of the proto-agency teams would come up with ideas … and those ideas would be hammered out in budget meetings and principals meetings, and with the president.”
Obama’s team put just as much muscle into outreach with Congress. Furman remembered “an intensive series of Hill meetings with leadership, authorizers and appropriators to orally convey all of these ideas, the size, the composition and many of the specifics. One day just before Christmas break, the meeting was literally about 12 hours long in a huge room in the Capitol, and we set up a schedule as staff rotated in and out to go through about six or so different topic areas ― that was for appropriations ― with parallel meetings with Ways and Means and Finance.”
Even after laying this groundwork, and with the economy in freefall, getting the stimulus through Congress was a big political lift. But the prep work meant that Obama and his allies could move the debate along quickly. They knew what they wanted, they had already out worked their message, and could cut deals as necessary. On Feb. 17, 2009, Obama signed the Recovery Act. The roughly $800 billion economic stimulus included $98 billion in dedicated infrastructure spending, plus billions more that went to infrastructure through separate channels, such as aid to state and local governments.
This Is How Trump Governs
Trump’s party has 52 seats in the Senate, while Obama’s had 59. But the Democratic caucus back then included plenty of conservatives representing Republican states and nervous about big spending. And some Democrats now are actually offering to help Trump on infrastructure, much to the dismay of many liberals. Republicans offered Obama no such assistance. (Obama famously learned that Republicans would oppose his package as he was on his way up to Capitol Hill, a week after inauguration, in order to discuss possible legislative dealmaking.)
Had Trump put even half the effort into infrastructure that Obama did, he might be in a position to take advantage of that Democratic cooperation ― and pass a bill that would not only be popular, but might also be good for the economy. But that’s not what Trump did ― on infrastructure or any other issue, for that matter.
During the presidential campaign, Trump mocked Hillary Clinton for her wonkishness: “She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” he said during one interview. “It’s just a waste of paper.” At one point, Trump’s own policy advisers quit because nobody was paying them or taking them seriously.
In retrospect, those weren’t aberrations. They were the signatures of a campaign that put a high premium on showmanship, with little regard for substance. So far, at least, the presidency is unfolding in the exact same way.