Bill Clinton salvaged his presidency by focusing on small-ball policy wins. Now Team Trump is trying to master the art of thinking tiny.
Faced with a rising drumbeat of scandal stemming from ongoing Russia probes, President Donald Trump is continuing to pursue a big, complicated legislative agenda — repealing Obamacare, reforming the tax system and passing an infrastructure package.
Any of those would be hard to achieve in perfect circumstances, but with the GOP ideologically fragmented and the White House distracted by legal trouble, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine Trump landing a big win. Veterans of past White Houses say if the president wants to keep Republican voters on his side, it’s time to turn his attention to putting forward discrete, achievable policy proposals that he can actually get done.
“It is the only strategy,” said Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “Trump will never be able to land a knockdown punch with policy until he has a Rose Garden signing ceremony, but he can at least keep delivering jabs.”
The White House seems to be getting the message. For months, executive branch actions to unwind or rewrite regulations got little notice. But in recent weeks, wonkier policies are getting more fanfare, with briefings for reporters and appearances by Cabinet officials in the press room.
On Wednesday, Trump is expected to announce the reorganization of government job training programs at the Labor Department as part of the White House’s “workforce development week” — the latest in the administration’s recent efforts to highlight tangible, limited goals like privatizing air traffic control or slashing regulations.
An administration official said the White House is planning more policy-themed weeks in the coming months, including one on energy tentatively scheduled for late June. The official said the weeks are aimed at unifying the White House’s message.
White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom cited Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch and his moves to roll back Obama-era regulations as successes: “The media has been ignoring the significant policy victories the president has been achieving for our country since the day he got into office, from pulling back onerous Obama-era regulations to putting Justice Gorsuch on the Supreme Court to stepping up for American jobs in trade negotiations, but the American people haven’t.”
Yet, despite the White House’s best efforts, Trump has often undercut his team’s efforts at message discipline, distracting from infrastructure initiatives last week and his jobs proposals this week with angry tweets about fake news, leaks and the investigations against him.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, said the president is an effective messenger for the administration’s policy proposals.
“He may not have a conventional style in doing that, but many of his efforts are extremely helpful to us in getting our legislative agenda accomplished,” Short said — though he acknowledged that there’s “no doubt” that the Russia investigations distract lawmakers from Trump’s policy agenda.
Both Clinton and President Barack Obama salvaged the latter halves of their presidencies with these kinds of policy rollouts. As a former governor, Clinton often felt most comfortable in campaign mode, so the Clinton White House filled his schedule with events and deployed his entire Cabinet to amplify policy announcements on everything from increasing home ownership to expanding the number of police officers on the beat.
“Presidential terms are like a nine-inning baseball game — you go from pitch to pitch, batter to batter, inning to inning,” said former Clinton White House staffer Chris Lehane, who helped manage the fallout from the administration’s scandals, which included impeachment proceedings. “It is a grind and requires discipline and teamwork from everyone on the squad.”
After the Democrats were dealt a brutal defeat in the 2010 midterm election, Obama changed his focus from big legislative achievements like the stimulus bill, Obamacare and banking regulations. In the years that followed, he reoriented his White House toward a greater use of executive power and issued a series of orders, actions and regulations on everything from climate change to nutrition, immigration, policing and education.
“In any administration, you want to show activity, but showing activity and results is not the same thing,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama. “We worked hard to find things where we could have impact and measure the impact.”
Other White House alumni agreed.
“It’s very important to maintain a very steady drumbeat of very positive news,” said former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, now a Republican who has praised Trump. Morris said that making consistent progress on smaller issues is “maybe more important” than big-ticket items like the repeal of Obamacare. “If you do those right, they’ll overcome the negatives that are coming out in the attack,” he said.
But, while conservatives are ready for any wins, some worry that any sustained focus on small-ball policy issues will distract the administration from its bigger promises.
Trump “needs someone on his team with discipline to say you may be bored about talking about health care, but our allies and voters aren’t,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh.
“They’re skipping around from one subject to the next,” he added, calling for a “focused executive-type approach that says these are our top three goals and we’re going to keep focusing on them until we hit this out of the park.”
McIntosh and other conservatives said one possible model for Trump is Ronald Reagan’s aggressive push for tax cuts in the 1980s. The then-president gave a televised speech in 1985 that officially launched the most recent overhaul of the tax code. President George W. Bush similarly led the way in the push to slash tax rates in 2001.
Conservatives hope that Trump can do the same for policy initiatives — big or small — given his remarkable ability to drive the news cycle.
“While health care and tax reform are mired in figuring out a path forward, they should pursue things unilaterally,” said Rohit Kumar, former domestic policy director and deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell. “But if I were running a Republican political campaign in 2018, I don’t think I would be comfortable trying to build a case just on the small-ball stuff. You need to also have health care and tax.”
Another question: Whether the president can stick to his administration’s strategy of touting small ball policy ideas amid so many other distractions. The White House organized a series of events last week to draw attention to the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but Trump started the week with an angry tirade against his own Justice Department for rewriting his travel ban and criticisms of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who was dealing with a terrorist attack.
“Much of the conversation is not focused on the policymaking but on Russia and the president’s tweets and that rarely enhances the policy direction of any administration,” Muñoz said. “Any administration faces headwinds. What is interesting is how many headwinds they have created for themselves.”
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.