There’s an unusual political genius in Trump’s frantic first 100 days. But the real puzzles are lurking in the next 1,000 days.
The 100-day plan is this: Disrupt everything that official Washington holds dear. Throw hundreds of balls in the air. Watch how they bounce. Grab the ones that bounce best. Repeat.
Then, to making sure that no one in federal agencies can slow down the disruption, don’t make appointments to subcabinet posts—or even to key executive jobs in the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management. Even members of the team can be speed bumps. The plan has Democrats on their heels and Republicans unsure about what’s going to happen next—or even whose game they’re playing.
But with the end of the first 100 days and the next 1,000 days looming, Trump will own whatever happens from now on. And that’s where the risks ratchet up, especially in a war against his own base.
Consider two big programs on the table: replacing Obamacare with Trumpcare and launching a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Both aim to cut big government down and push big decisions out—to states, cities, and a host of private partners. But they risk hurting the very people who elected Trump.
Consider first the plan for Trumpcare. As the Congressional Budget Office found, the American Health Care Act drafted by House Republicans will leave 24 million more people without health insurance by 2026. It’s likely to hurt precisely the people and the places where Trump received the most support.
Trumpcare pushes the toughest choices off to the states, giving them less money in exchange for more choice in a Medicaid block grant. That way, Trump can claim victory in repealing Obamacare but still distance himself from the decisions over who loses in the bargain, because those will be made elsewhere.
The American Health Care Act hides the real costs of the program in tax credits, an off-the-books strategy where costs aren’t counted as part of the regular appropriations process and sequestration. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan aren’t the first ones to discover the advantage of hiding spending in the tax code—we now spend as much money through tax deductions and credits as we spend in the entire discretionary part of the federal budget, including defense and all domestic programs outside entitlements. The difference: we count and fight over on-budget programs, but we hide and ignore the costs of tax breaks.
Then there’s the infrastructure plan. State and local government officials have been waiting for years for a way to finance the replacement of aging roads, bridges, water lines, and sewer pipes. As they’ve begun reimagining their communities, the idea that has attracted surprisingly bipartisan support.
But the Trump administration isn’t really planning to spend $1 trillion in federal money. The plan, rather, is to stimulate $1 trillion in private investment through government tax breaks. It’s another verse in the Trumpcare song, with big ideas and hidden costs.
Moreover, the money will only flow to projects where private investors see the biggest returns. Will that be Flint’s aging water pipes? Or more-flashy public-private ventures like airports and tollways? We could easily end up with an infrastructure plan where debt-strapped state and local governments struggle to get into the game, where investment banking houses will dominate the deal-making before cutting and running, and where Trump supporters wonder what happened to the new roads and bridges they were promised.
In the next 1,000 days, some very interesting battles are lining up:
- Trump is promising to cut federal agencies and wage war against the “deep state.” In fact, he’s weaving the state ever deeper into state and local governments, private contractors, consultants, and investment bankers. He’s cutting the federal government by making government as a whole bigger and broader. The tools he’s using will be harder to manage, especially with a slashed federal workforce.
- Trump is promising big things without swelling the budget, but the big costs will just as surely increase the national debt through off-budget tax breaks and push the toughest decisions into state and local governments.
- And then there’s the ticking political time bomb: the benefits of Trump’s programs are likely to flow away from his core supporters.
There’s real genius in the 100-day plan of disruption. He’s got more balls in the air than anyone thought possible. There’s the potential for even more genius in claiming success. He’s leaving many of the toughest decisions for others to work out, without his fingerprints on them.
But there’s a looming challenge: if the outcome doesn’t satisfy Trump supporters, who will they blame?
Donald F. Kettl is a professor and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.