Eight years ago, as Barack Obama prepared to move into the White House, he continued to offer the rhetoric of hope and change. Though many Republicans mocked it, that message was exactly what the American people wanted to hear.
Candidate Obama promised to change the way Washington worked and talked of bi-partisan cooperation. But, within weeks of taking office, President Obama rammed a so-called “economic stimulus” package through Congress that was so partisan it failed to win a single vote from House Republicans. He took the same polarizing approach to pass Obamacare.
The disconnect between the promises of candidate Obama and the policies of President Obama decimated the Democratic Party. Republicans have more state and federal political power today than at any point since the 1920s.
Now, it’s President-elect Donald Trump who must transition from rhetoric to policy. His challenge is different than Obama’s. It’s not about making Washington work better. It’s a promise to make the economy work better for middle class and working class Americans.
Like Obama, Trump has spent the transition showing that he remembers what got him elected. Acting as dealmaker in chief, he offered incentives to the Carrier air-conditioning company to keep a few hundred jobs in Indiana. He has claimed similar success with Sprint and Ford to bring jobs back to America and keep them here.
Symbolically, this is the right message. Working class Americans have long believed—with justification– that Washington politicians don’t care about them. It’s true of politicians from both parties. These are the sort of voters who put Trump over the top in heartland states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. These voters are thrilled to have an incoming president who is so visibly committed to fighting for them.
Now comes the hard part.
In a nation with 152 million workers and 7 million unemployed, the few thousand jobs Trump claims responsibility for are a drop in the bucket. They’re a powerful symbol, but nothing more. The new president cannot create the needed opportunities by playing dealmaker in chief and adding jobs a few thousand at a time.
Over the next few months, we will see if President-elect Trump can do a better job than President Obama in delivering policies that will match his rhetoric. If he does, and if the economy improves, Republicans will benefit. If not, the GOP under Trump could suffer the same fate as Democrats under Obama.
For any president, it ultimately comes down to a question of priorities. President Obama may have promised hope and change, but he decided implementing Democratic policies and an unpopular health care law were more important.
For President Trump, the tension will be between his deal-making instincts and his commitment to reducing the burden of excessive regulatory power. Reducing the power of distant and unaccountable bureaucrats will produce lasting economic benefits. When businesses can worry more about pleasing their customers rather than sucking up to politicians, America wins.
But, reducing the regulatory burden also limits the tools that a president can use to bully companies into submission. Sooner or later, the new president will have to decide whether he is more interested in playing dealmaker-in-chief or creating a healthy economy.
If he chooses wisely, the new president might actually deliver the hope and change promised eight years ago.