A year later: Trump has tried to keep promises and perhaps changed the presidency forever

WASHINGTON - A year ago, Donald Trump was promising the moon in Michigan: More jobs, less taxes, better trade deals for American workers, urban redevelopment, a wall on the Mexican border and more.

In return for that, Michigan voters surprised the nation and helped send him to the White House. 

With the anniversary of that victory approaching Nov. 8 and nine months into his presidency, Trump still has little to show in terms of legislative accomplishments. Health care reform is dead for the moment and a fractious fight over tax reform still awaits. His signature budget proposal – which would have eliminated funding for Great Lakes restoration – has largely been rejected.

More than half of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance. Members of his own party have castigated him for being outrageous and as having “difficulty with the truth.” Many voters call him “reckless” and “thin-skinned.” He has been criticized for not calling out white supremacists and for picking Twitter fights. 

But even if Trump’s character has been repeatedly questioned and he’s been a bust at bending a Republican-led Congress to his will, that’s not to say he hasn’t tried to live up to his promises. 

He has.

More so than any other president before him, Trump has shaken up the status quo, refused to kowtow to the establishment, and eschewed political correctness, just as promised.

And as promised, he quickly moved to curtail immigration and refugee resettlement from some predominately Muslim nations, even if courts blocked him. As promised, he reopened the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to change, even if business forces in Michigan are deathly worried what the proposals being floated by his administration might mean to their futures. As promised, he has replaced the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative jurist, Neil Gorsuch; moved to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and taken actions that have resulted, one way or another, in a slowdown in illegal immigration. 

As for those who would dismiss him as entirely ineffectual, it’s worth noting that his administration has quickly moved to rewire government – signaling withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, announcing more aggressive policies against Iran, upending rules and regulations (including fuel economy standards on cars) seen as onerous to business – just as promised.

And, if anyone needs reminding, the stock market has been on a fantastic run.

It’s been a year (almost). Hardly a day goes by without the president’s character being called into question, often because of his own desire to make himself heard or fight back over what, to many other presidents, would be trivial matters. There seems to be agreement that he can be his own worst enemy and a cloud still hangs over his administration with investigations into Russian meddling in the election ongoing.

But this story is about what Trump has and has not done and his promises to Michigan, where they stand and what people are saying about them:

JOBS AND THE STOCK MARKET

In fairness to Trump, much of his campaign rhetoric in Michigan and elsewhere focused on creating jobs and wealth. And there is no arguing that — for whatever reason — the stock market has been booming: The Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen more than 25% since Nov. 8 to surpass the 23,000 mark.Unemployment nationally has ticked down from 4.8% in January to 4.2% in September — and in Michigan from 5.2% to 4.3% during that time.

Trump’s supporters, like businesswoman Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills, who helped run his successful campaign in Michigan and who is a Republican candidate for Congress next year, say he deserved credit for that, even before he entered office in January.

“Every single bank president I’ve talked to felt the positive aspects of a Trump presidency,” said Epstein, whose company, Vesco Oil, makes industrial and automobile lubricants. “Consumer confidence rose.”

In Lansing, political consultant John Truscott said even as some business priorities — tax reform, infrastructure investment and replacing the Affordable Care Act – have yet to happen, business has been buoyed by changes to roll back what it sees as burdensome regulations.

The Trump administration has moved to curtail EPA’s broad authority on water pollution, specifically saying it would rescind a 2015 Clean Water Rule that gave the agency greater leeway to act over what it considered dangerous pollutants, even as farmers and businesses said it was regulatory overreach. It has repealed Obama-era emission rules on coal-fired power plants that had earlier resulted in a Supreme Court fight led by the state of Michigan over whether business interests should have been taken into account before the policy was set and that Trump — over the objections of environmentalists — hopes will lead to more work for coal miners. The administration has also taken steps to reopen fuel economy standards on automobiles, a move cheered by automakers. 

There is a general feeling that those moves — and others — have helped fuel market gains.

But Trump’s critics, including U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, argue that more credit should go to former-President Barack Obama for bringing back the economy from the brink of depression in 2009 in ways that are now bearing fruit. As for the stock market, she said Trump “hasn’t done anything to increase it or destroy it but there is a perception that as a businessman he will do things that support it.”

She also said there is little proof that the wealth that is being created is trickling down to workers in any meaningful way. Statistics indicate that average hourly wages are up across the country by about six-tenths of a percent since Trump’s election. 

As for the stock market run, Truscott warned that no administration should count on one continuing – and needs to prepare for the shock that may come when it ends. 

“It’s been on a heck of a ride,” he said. “It’s going to turn south sometime.”

TRADE AND NAFTA

From the day he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump went after Detroit’s automakers — specifically Ford — for having operations in Mexico. Throughout the campaign, he variously threatened to impose huge tariffs on American companies that moved operations outside of the U.S. and to tear up NAFTA, saying the 1990s-era trade deal with Canada and Mexico has been bad for workers, sending jobs out of the country. 

There is plenty of evidence that NAFTA has been good for the U.S. but in blasting it, Trump took up a line of thinking that has long been a Democratic argument in the industrial Midwest but one seldom heard from Republicans. But once in office – even after meetings with Detroit’s automakers seen as largely supportive of NAFTA – Trump took the even rarer step of reopening NAFTA to negotiation.

Those demands may include upping the percentage of an automobile and its parts that must originate in the countries — and specifically in the U.S. — to be tariff-free, meaning it could hurt the bottom lines of automakers counting on cheaper labor elsewhere to produce parts for those vehicles. That, in turn, could increase prices, and damage automakers' competitive edge. 

Truscott said “there is a lot of concern” among automakers and suppliers over what happens with NAFTA and whether Trump could move forward with a threat to withdraw if he doesn’t get what he wants. But there is no dearth of workers in Michigan and elsewhere who might cheer if Trump extracted conditions that protected jobs in the U.S.

It's not just automakers who are worried about the future of NAFTA, however. Across the country and in Michigan, farmers worry that the huge gains they have made through low-tariff trade could be hurt if Mexico retaliates against a tough negotiating stance by the U.S. Meanwhile, anything that potentially hurts trade with Canada could be felt at the Detroit and Port Huron border crossings, just as any major impact on automakers and their suppliers would be felt across the state economy. 

No state, in fact, faces as much uncertainty over what a new NAFTA might mean as Michigan. 

Nothing’s happened yet but signs aren’t good, with the next round of negotiations put off until Nov. 17 and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer saying he’s been “surprised and disappointed by the resistance to change from our negotiating partners.”

“There are huge concerns over NAFTA,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “It didn’t get a lot of attention from the business community during the campaign (but) the U.S. business community is much more aligned with the Canadian government and the Mexican government than they are with our own government.”

One other fact regarding trade: Trump argued in Michigan and elsewhere he wanted to bring down the nation’s trade deficit. As of August, it was at $361 billion for the year, higher than the $332 billion for the same period last year. But, as has been said, it’s early in Trump’s term in office. 

IMMIGRATION 

A week after his inauguration, Trump followed through on a campaign promise to sharply scale back or halt immigration and refugee resettlement from nations —predominately Muslim ones — that he said posed a danger of allowing terrorists to slip through into the U.S. 

Since then, that executive order and others on the topic have been halted, resurrected, rewritten and halted again by federal courts. Recently, he lifted an overall ban on most refugee re-settlements, ordering a new system of what he has called "extreme vetting." Meanwhile, the latest categorical ban on practically all immigrants and refugees from eight countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and  Yemen — remains in place, though courts have blocked that as well.

Whatever your take on the rightness or wrongness of the policy – and there are reasons to believe that reducing immigration and refugee resettlement both hurts the economy – Trump has tried to live up to his campaign promise, which he maintained was intended to keep America safe.

And its effect in Michigan, with a sizable Arab-American population, has been felt. Where in the first 10 months of 2016, the state took in some 4,300 refugees – including about 2,500 Iraqis and Syrians fleeing civil war in the Middle East – the total this year has been only about 1,300 people, less than 700 of whom are from Syria and Iraq. 

Lawrence acknowledged that Trump has kept his promise and his “perception that people from certain countries are undesirable,” despite what she called the offensiveness of that rhetoric. During the campaign, she and many others in southeastern Michigan and across the country blasted Trump for taking a stand many saw as prejudiced, noting that the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. have denounced violence and there was little evidence that refugees — who already underwent a long vetting process before being allowed into the country — posed a threat.

Meanwhile, no money has been approved yet for Trump’s promise of a border wall with Mexico and there is no indication that — despite Trump’s many assertions on the campaign trail — Mexico is going to pay for its construction. But statistics show border apprehensions are down this year — with 30,567 along the southwest border in August, compared to 51,961 in August of last year, continuing a trend since February, suggesting Trump’s rhetoric about cracking down on undocumented immigrants is having an effect.

Still hanging fire after Trump rescinded an Obama order protecting people who were brought into the country as children is whether a Republican-led Congress will act within the six months he gave it to do so. Trump has talked as though he is in favor of getting such a bill passed — as long as it includes funding for his border wall — though it's far from clear whether Congress will move on either.

TAX REFORM, URBAN RENEWAL AND INFRASTRUCTURE

In the months leading up to the election, Trump talked a lot about Detroit and other urban centers, suggesting that African Americans should turn out to vote for him. They didn’t. 

But during that season, Trump talked up a lot of plans he said would create jobs in Detroit and elsewhere. Some of that was supposedly tied to trade and, as we’ve said, that effort is ongoing. He also talked a lot about his tax reform plans – including simplifying tax brackets, providing a break on child-care costs and cutting corporate tax rates he said would help create jobs.

Stuck behind health care reform, tax reform has been long stalled and even with the House expected to act quickly on it, agreement in the Senate is expected to be more difficult. What’s clear, however, is that Trump has largely allowed Congress to take the lead and has found himself reacting to its proposals – such as whether to limit the tax exemption on 401(k) retirement plans – rather than dictating the discussion or their pace.

Trump has maintained that tax reform will greatly benefit the middle class. But until a final framework is announced – and analyzed by neutral parties – it is difficult to tease out what’s its likely effects will be. Even then, it’s outcome will depend on many economic and societal factors.

Meanwhile, Trump’s promises of finding $1 trillion to spend on America’s roads and bridges also remains to be fleshed out, another first-year casualty of an agenda that seemed to stall out at regular intervals despite Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said look for infrastructure to be on the move next year. 

“It won’t see the light of day until we get tax reform,” said Mitchell, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who believes Trump is less to blame for not getting his agenda enacted than the Senate, where Republicans hold only a slim two-seat majority.

Trump has been silent, however, on other campaign promises, such as his idea of creating “a federal disaster designation for blighted communities” to “initiate the rebuilding of vital infrastructure, the demolition of abandoned properties and the increased presence of law enforcement.”

Epstein said Trump deserves credit nonetheless for an economic upswing that serves to help Detroit, with unemployment down and the stock market up. “All of these forces affect inner cities,” she said. “It’s not fair to say he hasn’t addressed inner cities.”

There are others, however, who say not only does he not deserve credit for that market surge but that Trump’s legislative inexperience and the failure he has shown in rallying support to his side – as he has regularly battled with and alienated members of his own party – will continue with few accomplishments likely to accrue to his resume. 

“One of his claims was that he was a great negotiator (and) that has also turned out to be illusionary. … He’s really a poor negotiator.” said Mike Traugott, with the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. “Even looking forward, I don’t think the prospects are very good. … In terms of outcomes, he hasn’t produced anything.”

HEALTH CARE 

Like most if not all other Republican candidates, Trump vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — and replace it with something providing better, more affordable care. 

That, of course, turned out to be a far more difficult task than he and other Republicans thought, as a repeal and replace effort failed in the Senate and, for the time being, has been shelved. 

In the meantime, however, Trump and his administration have been taking steps that could greatly impact the approximately 300,000 Michiganders who get individual or small group insurance through the Obamacare exchanges. 

Trump has discontinued payments to insurers intended to help offset costs to certain recipients making up to 2 ½ times the poverty limit – a move that won’t necessarily hurt those recipients, since the law caps how much they can be forced to pay with the federal government subsidizing the rest through tax credits directly to them. But it will force some plan premiums higher – potentially forcing more people who don’t get tax credits to drop out and insurers to leave the market.

There is a bipartisan push in Congress to try to restore that funding as a way to stabilize insurance markets and coverage but it faces an uncertain future in the House and Senate — and Trump has sent mixed signals as to whether he will support it or not.

The president has also pulled back on grants to organizations intended to help recipients navigate the ins and outs of signing up for coverage – a move  that critics say will lead to fewer people signing up. And he has said that just about any employer can claim a religious or moral objection to providing birth control and strip it out of coverage. 

Trump continues to say that Democrats are responsible for Obamacare’s problems – which include increasing premiums and insurers leaving the market in some areas – but it’s an open question whether voters will see that as the case in next year’s mid-term elections, with Republicans in control of government and presumably empowered to make changes or improvements. 

Mitchell says that Trump doesn’t deserve blame for health care failing – the Senate does. 

“The biggest challenge the president has had … is the fact that the United States Senate is sitting in neutral at best,” he said, speaking not just of health care reform but of the pace of legislating overall. “The president’s frustration with it is entirely appropriate. I’m frustrated too.”

Baruah – who was acting administrator for the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush – said while it’s easy to point fingers, it’s incumbent on a president and his administration to “chart a course, make a case for that course … and do what is necessary to gain support for (it).”

“I have zero sympathy for the charge, ‘Oh, it’s Congress’ fault,” he said. “Absolutely zero. That’s the lame excuse administration’s use when they lack the ability to get something done.”

THE REST…

Nine months into his administration and a year after his election, Trump remains as difficult to predict as ever. . He has engaged in behavior that can only be described as un-presidential – from his bullying Twitter rants, to his belittling of world leaders, to his comments on the “fine people” who stood with white supremacists during the conflict over the fate of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va.

But more so than perhaps any other politician – and that’s what he is now – of recent years, he came to Washington promising to change the status quo. And while Congress and the bureaucracy is still functioning – and many would say have been empowered to take the reins of governance by Trump’s lack of focus, unhelpful remarks and inexperience – it is also clear that he has shaken up and perhaps forever changed the presidency.

How that comes home to roost for his party in next year’s midterm elections may provide an indication of just where Americans stand on Donald Trump. That question must remain open for now. But the recent spate of Republican retirements – and the list of stronger-than-usual candidates being recruited by the Democrats – suggests next year could be a potentially decisive one.

Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant in Lansing, said that even if the market stumbles and Trump’s record of legislative accomplishment lags, he doesn’t expect it to hurt him with his core supporters, as long as the president continues acting as he does. 

 

“His ceiling for success is fairly low as long as he continues to act out the grievances of the white working class,” DiSano said. “Looking at his success through traditional lenses is a sure way to miss what is really going on. He’s out there knee-capping people on a daily basis… He doesn’t have a lot to show for it legislatively but to his supporters, they just want to see a food fight.”

His supporters – including Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a former congresswoman who remains in touch with the White House – say even if he creates a lot of his own controversy with his remarks on Twitter, he’s doing fine. The market’s up, illegal border crossings are down and he’s let potential enemies internationally know he’s not fooling around, she said. 

She doesn’t doubt for a second that he’s succeeded in shaking up Washington. 

“Obviously, they have gotten the message that things have changed,” she said. “I think they have to get used to him. Let’s face it … he’s the most non-politician-type president we’ve ever had. That’s one of the reasons he was elected. And the politicians are having a hard time coming to grips with it all. I can understand that, it’s so different.”

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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