The Potpourri Presidency
A decentralized and conflicted administration was uniquely inconsistent in its policy actions.
History buffs eagerly await the final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s magisterial biography that has thus far—through four volumes and 3,000 pages—reached only to the months after the Kennedy assassination. Caro reports that his manuscript is already more than 600 pages long, and less than halfway through Johnson’s administration. An assessment of the policy actions taken by President Trump’s administration, written as it concludes, will necessarily be less comprehensive and definitive. But policymakers do not enjoy the historian’s luxury of time; policymakers must begin now to identify where the incoming administration and future administrations will find a foundation to build upon and inspiration for further progress.
Policy is where the rubber of personnel decisions meets the road of governing philosophy. Agencies with differing leadership and priorities travel in differing directions. Alignment of presidential vision, agency staff, and political opportunity can yield real progress, while conflicts within and among such factors cause a pile-up. Unsurprisingly, then, the Trump administration’s track record features plenty of each. In some domains, administration policy reflected the president’s worker- and industry-focused campaign platform, boosting the fortunes of Americans in the labor market and American producers in the global economy. In others, officials clung to outdated orthodoxies or executed poorly, leaving little worth replicating or even preserving.
Successes for American Workers
The Trump administration showed a clear and consistent commitment to policy reforms that advanced the prospects of less-skilled American workers in the labor market.
A prominent example of this focus was support for alternative pathways into stable, family-supporting jobs for Americans without college degrees. The White House established a National Council for the American Worker that developed a strategy for skills training and retraining in high-demand sectors, including a “Pledge to America’s Workers” that secured commitments from more than 430 companies and non-profits to provide more than 16 million training opportunities for American workers over the next five years. The Department of Labor also oversaw a major expansion of apprenticeship programs, adding 800,000 new participants in registered apprenticeships, accelerating the pace set by the Obama administration. For high-demand sectors where traditional apprenticeships (concentrated in the building and skilled trades) were unavailable or difficult to register, the Department created an “Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship” (IRAP) model that enables third parties, such as state agencies, education providers, and employer associations, to develop the standards and curricula for training programs. Though funding faces an uncertain future, programs have already been recognized or approved in 20 industries, and the Department of Labor projects that there could be thousands more in ten years.
Through immigration policy, the administration also sought to boost the prospects of less-skilled American workers by reducing foreign workers’ access to the labor market and curbing employer abuses of visa programs. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased worksite enforcement against illegal immigrants and their employers. In 2019, the president reached “Safe Third Country” agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to ease the flow of asylum-seekers at the southern border. The agreements require asylum-seekers traveling to the U.S. through Central America to make their claims in the first “safe third country” they reach. The Trump administration struck a similar arrangement with Mexico through its Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” program that requires Mexico to accept some asylum-seekers as they await their day in U.S. immigration courts and includes a commitment by Mexico to deploy troops to secure its border with Guatemala.
Targeting abuse of the H-1B visa program, which provides employers with access to lower-cost labor for jobs requiring higher levels of education, the Department of Labor revised upward the wage scale for H-1B workers to ensure greater parity with American workers: requiring pay at the 45th percentile of a given profession for entry-level workers (up from the 17th percentile) and at the 95th percentile for the highest-skilled workers (up from the 67th). The Department of Homeland Security narrowed the education qualifications for H-1B visas, requiring applicants to possess a degree in the particular field in which they wish to work. The policy reforms, however, prompted a legal challenge led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and, as of this writing, had been struck down in federal court.
The administration had major immigration failures as well, most prominent the cruelly and ineptly implemented “child separation” policy. In some cases, as with the effort to reverse the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (the “Dreamers”), a combination of poor administrative practice and judicial overreach frustrated intended actions. In still others, the problem was one of omission—failing to substantially improve border security, for instance, or mandate the E-Verify system for determining worker eligibility.
As Julius Krein notes in “A Populism Deferred,” the net effect of the Trump administration’s efforts does appear to have been a substantial decline in the rate of migration—both legal and illegal—into the United States. Whereas the nation’s immigrant population grew by roughly 650,000 per year from 2010 to 2017, that rate slowed by more than two-thirds, to about 200,000 per year, from 2017 to 2019, a remarkable shift in the face of the latter period’s substantially stronger economy and labor market. To some degree, the shift may also have been responsible for the labor market’s strength—regions that saw their foreign-born populations shrink experienced relatively greater wage growth.
Finally, the Trump administration sought to implement its general approach to labor markets in federal employment policy. President Trump directed federal agencies to remove unnecessary degree requirements from their hiring policies, citing the need for a skills- and merit-based civil service. He also reversed an egregious abuse of the H-1B system by the (publicly-owned) Tennessee Valley Authority and subsequently barred H-1B visa-holders from replacing American workers (both citizens and green-card holders) at federal agencies and on federal contracts.
Successes for American Producers
Alongside efforts on behalf of American workers seeking well-paying jobs, the Trump administration also sought to help American firms who could provide those jobs, pursuing policies aimed at deterring unfair foreign competition and boosting domestic investment and innovation.
This goal was most evident in the administration’s trade policy, which featured important and valuable steps but lacked a coherent strategy for replacing the status quo. The administration’s most aggressive actions came against China, where it imposed substantial tariffs that forced the Chinese to the negotiating table, ultimately yielding the “Phase One” agreement. That agreement included Chinese commitments to purchase $200 billion in American goods and services annually by 2021 and to refrain from forced technology transfers. But it failed to address some of China’s most aggressive mercantilist practices, including intellectual-property theft and subsidization of critical industries, and China’s compliance remains to be seen; it has already fallen behind in its purchase commitments. The most important tangible accomplishment may have been political rather than economic, establishing a framework in which the United States has demonstrated a capacity to retaliate with tariffs against Chinese abuses and China has agreed to negotiate under those conditions.
Elsewhere, the administration’s negotiation and renegotiation of trade agreements achieved some additional benefits for domestic producers. These included small, bilateral agreements with Japan and South Korea and the update to NAFTA known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In addition to new intellectual-property protections, USMCA discouraged automotive production from shifting to Mexico by increasing domestic content requirements for automobiles from 62.5 to 75 percent and requiring that 40 to 45 percent of a vehicle’s parts be made in a high-wage factory. It also established sweeping labor protections and secured commitments from the Mexican government to pursue legal reforms that would reduce labor abuses and raise wages. At the WTO, the U.S. Trade Representative defanged the appellate body by blocking new appointments, thus preventing member countries from abusing the litigation process to overturn U.S. trade laws.
Some actions, though, had the counterproductive effect of isolating the United States from potential allies who could have helped in confronting China. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations abandoned a nascent trading bloc explicitly designed to counteract China’s influence. Tariffs imposed on Canadian and European products lacked strategic rationale and likewise alienated important partners whose collaboration would prove vital on issues like 5G deployment.
Domestically, the Trump administration pursued sporadic efforts to reshore supply chains and boost innovation. President Trump issued a “Buy American and Hire American” executive order to impose stricter enforcement of existing federal procurement laws and establish “the policy of the executive branch to maximize, consistent with the law . . . the use of goods, products and materials produced in the United States”; Executive Order 13944, issued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, directed federal agencies to purchase “essential drugs” and medical equipment made in the United States. The administration also launched and funded a dozen federal research centers in AI and quantum computing, consolidated the military’s space operations into a single branch, and directed NASA to launch manned lunar missions by 2024. But beyond securing a $12 billion investment from Taiwan Semiconductor for a chip-fabrication plant in Arizona, the administration made few tangible strides toward strengthening the domestic industrial base. An issue like 5G equipment development and deployment, for instance, received substantial political attention and high-level engagement by the White House, but the administration never developed a whole-of-government approach or achieved meaningful progress.
While an emphasis on deregulation has been standard Republican fare for decades, the Trump administration took a nuanced approach, deregulating in some areas but more often seeking to slow the pace of new regulation, streamline the process in existing regulation, or emphasize different types of regulation. In health care, especially, it regulated aggressively.
All of the administration’s regulatory activities operated within the context of Executive Order 13711, issued within days of President Trump’s inauguration, which established a “2-for-1” rule requiring that federal agencies eliminate two regulations for every new regulation issued and a “regulatory budget” limiting the cumulative economic cost of new regulations issued. In the four years that followed, the Trump administration issued substantially fewer economically significant regulations per year than the Obama, Bush 43, or Clinton administration.
Environmental regulation was an area of particular emphasis. President Trump issued Executive Order 13807 to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process for infrastructure and construction projects, limiting the types of projects requiring review, establishing time limits for reviews, and deemphasizing assessment of climate-change effects. In its most significant regulatory action, EPA replaced the Obama administration’s flagship Clean Power Plan, which required states to sharply reduced carbon emissions from their power plants, with the Affordable Clean Energy plan, which set less strict emissions standards and afforded states greater flexibility to set power-plant performance standards. While reducing emphasis on climate change, the EPA substantially increased its focus on “Superfund” sites, where federal action is required to address toxic contamination of land or water. By September 2020, the administration had addressed fifty-eight such sites and accelerated clean-ups in several major projects that had stalled, returning to a pace of progress not seen in nearly two decades.
Health care offers a noteworthy counterpoint, where the Trump administration issued important new regulations aimed at lowering prices by improving transparency and prohibiting anti-competitive practices. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued rules requiring hospitals to disclose the prices they negotiate with insurance companies and prohibiting drugmakers from paying Medicare “middlemen” rebates to pharmacy benefit managers. President Trump issued Executive Order 13948, adopting a “most favored nation” price-control policy to guarantee that Medicare Part B paid drugmakers the lowest price available to other wealthy countries. And Trump signed legislation ending so-called “gag orders” that prevented pharmacists from disclosing cheaper drug options to consumers. In one crucial deregulatory move, he also signed “Right to Try”legislation allowing terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs and therapies not yet approved by the FDA.
Recycling Old Playbooks
Many of the Trump administration’s biggest policy misses occurred where officials appeared to draw from a satirical version of the standard Republican playbook, siding uncritically with “the market” or “choice” or “smaller government” regardless of situation or outcome.
The Department of Education stands out in this respect, particularly when placed beside the Department of Labor’s innovative approaches to supporting non-college career pathways. The agency repealed rules requiring training and certificate-granting programs to prove that their graduates achieved gainful employment and revised the Borrower Defense to Repayment rules to make it more difficult for students whose schools defrauded them or closed while they were enrolled to have their federal loans discharged.
Alongside efforts to empower ineffective education programs at the expense of students, the administration implemented purportedly market-friendly reforms on behalf of the financial sector. The Department of Labor took steps to allow private-equity funds access to individual 401(k) investors, who lack the resources and expertise to properly assess the industry’s risk profile, fee structures, or its notoriously opaque performance measures. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau relaxed restrictions on payday lending after an aggressive lobbying campaign from the industry. And the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed another layer for the hedge-fund industry, lifting disclosure requirements for all but the largest funds and allow activist funds to operate undetected.
The Trump administration also made repeated efforts to shrink and constrain the safety net rather than pursuing constructive reforms. The Office of Management and Budget proposed significant cuts to major safety-net and entitlement programs. The 2021 Trump budget, for example, called for cuts over the next decade of $181 billion in SNAP, $21 billion in TANF, $920 billion in Medicaid, and $750 billion in Medicare. Meanwhile, agencies sought to implement new work requirements. The Department of Agriculture attempted to introduce work requirements for SNAP that could have affected food stamp eligibility for 1.3 million Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services began issuing waivers to states so that they could experiment with work requirements for Medicaid. By November 2020, eight states’ experiments had been approved and another seven were pending, but the program has worked badly. In Arkansas, the first state to proceed, thousands of eligible beneficiaries were purged from Medicaid rolls as cumbersome reporting requirements made employment data difficult to log; the Arkansas program was struck down in federal court as were similar programs in Kentucky and New Hampshire. While the Trump administration has continued to promote the waivers, at least three states paused their programs.
A final, bizarre but instructive, case is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s attempt to reform Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy. Led by Dr. Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon with no experience in housing or urban policy, HUD initially pursued an innovative approach that would establish incentives for recipients of federal funding to reduce regulatory barriers to housing supply in high-cost areas. This was a worthy goal that could have significantly benefited lower-income and working-class households. But in the summer of 2020, seemingly motivated by the Trump re-election campaign’s desire to appeal to suburban voters, the administration reversed course. It not only scrapped the proposed HUD reforms, but also attempted to moot AFFH entirely. Under the banner of “protecting the suburbs,” HUD introduced a new rule that would allow anything that “rationally relates” to AFFH’s objectives to fulfill its requirements, claiming that Opportunity Zones (which offered tax breaks to developers) would better address housing affordability.
The AFFH whiplash is emblematic of the paradoxes underlying many of the administration’s policy actions: a collision of good ideas, inadequate personnel, and tone-deaf political judgment produced good policies in some cases, bad ones in others, but rarely a coherent strategy or meaningful inflection point. This makes for a legacy both fascinating and frustrating, and one that no set of partisans can comfortably embrace or dismiss in full. The incoming Biden administration will presumably seek to undo much of what its predecessor has done, but hopefully it will take the time first to notice the many important accomplishments—in areas like workforce development, trade and immigration, rational regulation, and health care—that could be built upon rather than cast aside. Republicans contemplating their post-Trump future would likewise do well to avoid a binary decision between embracing and disavowing the Trumpian program wholesale.
Wells King is the research director at American Compass.
The other articles in this series, “What Happened: The Trump Presidency In Review,” published in partnership with American Compass, can be found here:
“Foreword: The Work Remains,” by Daniel McCarthy
Introduction, from American Compass
“Too Few of the President’s Men,” by Rachel Bovard
“A Populism Deferred,” by Julius Krein
“Some Like it Hot,” by Oren Cass