Ever since Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring for president in 2015 there has been debate over whether Trump is a conservative. Spoiler alert: He’s not. While not a conservative, we now know that, at least in the short term, Mr. Trump is anti-Obama.
But, David, you may argue, if Obama is a liberal and Trump is anti-Obama, doesn’t that make Trump a conservative? The answer is that while there is a lot of overlap between being anti-Obama and being conservative, the two are not the same.
On policy, being the anti-Obama is obviously pleasing to conservatives. Even conservatives who are not personal fans of Trump will admit that they like many of his policy moves. Like George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” if every instinct that Obama had was liberal and wrong, all Trump would have to do to succeed is do the opposite. We have seen the Trump Administration roll back Obama-era policies on taxes, Iran, climate change, healthcare, and abortion to name a few.
One problem with an anti-Obama ideology is that even though Obama was wrong 99 percent of the time, he did the right thing on occasion. Even a stopped clock is right twice each day.
The most serious error that Trump made in unmaking the Obama legacy was one of his first acts as president: Withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership. Conservatives have traditionally embraced free trade, but Trump has gone to great lengths to grow the government’s ability to pick winners and losers in international trade. That withdrawing from the TPP was a mistake is evident by the fact that the Administration is now considering rejoining the trade deal.
A second example is the Trump Administration’s restrictions on legal immigration. A Trump-era shortage of H-2B visas for migrant workers has led to labor shortages in many industries across the country from seafood processors in Maine and Alaska to crop pickers in Texas and California. The shortage has even affected hotels and resorts such as Mar-a-Lago.
In many cases, it has been easy to erase Barack Obama’s legacy because the former president, when faced with a Congress that was not dominated by Democrats, chose to go his own way with executive actions rather than forging bipartisan coalitions to enact more permanent legislation. Where Obama was able to pass laws, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation, reversing his legacy has been piecemeal.
There are two obvious areas in which President Trump has not departed from President Obama’s legacy. One is in ending Obama’s executive amnesty program, DACA, and the other is Syria.
Last year, President Trump announced plans to end DACA, but called on Congress to pass a law that would extend the program. Earlier this year, Trump offered Democrats a deal on DACA in exchange for funding for his border wall. After Democrats rebuffed the deal, a court order prevented Trump from ending the program, but, given Trump’s ambivalence on ending DACA in the campaign, one must wonder whether he would really give the program the axe if he could.
In Syria, President Trump has largely continued Barack Obama’s policy of airstrikes against ISIS and providing Special Forces advisors to friendly factions. With the exception of two limited strikes on Syrian regime airbases in the wake of chemical weapons attacks, Trump’s Syria policy is very similar to Obama’s. This also applies to his lack of commitment to the region. In recent months, the president has hinted that the US is considering a withdrawal from the region that would be much like Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq.
On matters apart from policy, President Trump is not conservative in any sense of the word. The president is brash and impulsive, seemingly making decisions on the fly. Trump’s private life is more like that of Bill Clinton, Gary Hart and John Edwards than Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Mr. Trump’s relationship with truth and reality seems Orwellian.
The big question is, “Does it matter?”
To a point, the answer is no. Rolling back the Obama legacy is, for the most part, a good thing. The past eight years were filled with bad decisions that stifled American economic growth and allowed dangerous enemies to flourish. Obama’s errors desperately needed to be corrected.
Ultimately, America needs more than an anti-Obama. The country needs someone who can unite it around a positive vision. We need someone who can build legislative coalitions to pass reforms in Congress rather by executive decree. Even though many of President Trump’s policies have been good, most, like those of Obama, are grounded only in Executive Orders and bureaucratic regulations that can be easily reversed by the next president.
In another similarity to Obama, President Trump’s lack of grounding in free market principles contributes to an uncertain business climate. Businesses never knew what new regulations would be coming down the pike from the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration is much the same. Tariffs are suddenly announced and dropped just as abruptly, only to have a new possible tariff floated the next day. Long-term planning is impossible in such an environment and could erode the traditional support of business groups for Republicans.
There is also the question of what course the nonideological Trump will take when the low-hanging fruit of easy reversals of Obama-era policies have all been plucked. Whether Republicans keep control of Congress or not, there is a limit to what can be accomplished with executive actions and bureaucratic rulemaking. Trump may well tack left to make deals with Democrats if Republicans lose their majority.
Perhaps worse, Trump’s antics are driving young voters away from the GOP. Despite increased economic opportunity, a recent Harvard poll found an impressive 41-point gap in favor of Democrats for young voters. Likewise, the Associated Press found that young Americans disapprove of President Trump by more than two-to-one. Similar polling of young voters in 2004 showed George W. Bush only 10 points behind John Kerry. Donald Trump is good at signing Executive Orders, but he is not good at articulating to the next generation why they should embrace a conservative, pro-freedom ideology.
Donald Trump has done better than expected at reversing eight years of Obamanism, but the president lacks the conservative foundation and legislative experience to complete the reform. Further, Trump’s personal behavior turns off voters to the Republican brand. In the short-term, an anti-Obama president is a good thing, but President Trump has so far been unable to implement lasting legislative reforms and that seems unlikely to change.
Originally published on The Resurgent