As we approach, gingerly, the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, none of the disasters feared by critics has come to pass. The economy has turned at least mildly upward rather than plummet to depression, the executive branch has obeyed court orders and let the press do its work unhampered, no military disaster has occurred. Fears that seemed plausible to many have proved unjustified.
In some important respects, Trump and the congressional Republican majorities have made important changes in public policy — in appointing judges, dismantling regulations, cutting tax rates, and changing the tax system. You don’t have to agree with his opponents and critics to understand how they must be infuriated that such a narrow electoral result has proved to be so consequential.
But Trump has not yet delivered on what the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib correctly identifies as his signature issues in his 2016 campaign — immigration, trade, and infrastructure. And it’s far from certain how and whether he will do so.
Take immigration, currently much in the news. Trump’s move last September to withdraw former President Barack Obama’s probably illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order in March has given him leverage over Democrats. He and they both want a statute legalizing the 900,000 young people brought illegally to the country as children, and he needs some Democratic votes.
But he has a veto and therefore is positioned to demand other changes Democrats don’t want. Like an end to extended family chain migration and the visa lottery, moves toward a skills-based system like Canada’s and Australia’s, an E-Verify system to verify the status of job applicants, and, of course, the border wall (which he has conceded would not in every place be an actual wall).
Unfortunately, Trump is not always clear about these things. He told a bipartisan congressional audience at one meeting he’d sign anything they want, and at the next, indicated, reportedly in scatological terms, that he wanted no part of the package put together by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
In the process he seemed unaware that we tend to get high-skill immigrants from many "shithole countries," from which brainy people naturally want to escape. And it’s not clear he appreciates that we’ve been getting a generally higher-skilled immigrant inflow since the 2007-08 crash than we did before.
Some Democrats, perhaps misled by biased press coverage, want a government shutdown over DACA; some want to flail Trump as a racist, in the hope that he’ll cave; some Republicans oppose the reforms he purportedly seeks. It’s a negotiation with many moving parts, on which the press is an unreliable narrator, and in which the president often seems to be practicing something other than the "art of the deal."
Meanwhile, offstage, negotiations are ongoing with Canada and Mexico on revising NAFTA. The chief danger here is that overweening American demands could affect Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election. Currently leading the polls is the left-wing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who tied up Mexico City’s streets for months with demonstrators protesting his narrow loss in the 2006 election.
AMLO, as he is called, is a particularly formidable candidate, since as mayor of Mexico City he showed a rare capacity to deliver on promises and since there’s no runoff he only needs a plurality in this multi-candidate race to win. If elected, he’d probably be more hostile to the U.S. than any Mexican president over the last 70 years. That’s not a desirable outcome, and one the Trump administration should take some pains to avoid. Isn't it?
Then there’s infrastructure, one issue on which it has been possible to imagine bipartisan agreement. Possible, but difficult. Democrats have spoken derisively of the Trump campaign’s mutterings about public-private partnerships, which have been employed to great benefit in Canada and Europe; private investors are unlikely to back bridge-to-nowhere boondoggles.
It’s not clear that either the administration or the opposition appreciate that the real need here is not so much for shiny new projects but for effective maintenance of existing facilities. Take a look at the New York City subway if you need convincing.
Then there’s the question of whether Democrats want to be seen cooperating with Trump on anything; certainly their party’s base doesn’t. Many Democrats seem determined not just to win the next election but to overturn the last one. Put that together with Trump’s chaotic negotiating style and considerable ignorance of specifics, and you can see how his second year could turn out worse than the first.