Read: The high-water mark of the Trump presidency
The problem is that none of Trump’s stated priorities really align with budget cuts. He wants a big, beautiful wall and a big, beautiful military, and those both require more, rather than less, spending. Trump may not be a Roosevelt Democrat, exactly, but he also seems to have no particular ideological fixation on shrinking government or the importance of deficits. He was more than happy to expand the deficit with tax cuts in late 2017.
It’s hard to imagine what Trump would want to cut steeply, either. Entitlements, which make up roughly half of the federal budget, are extremely popular, as every president who has attempted to cut them has discovered. More importantly, Trump promised during the 2016 campaign not to cut entitlements, and while he could change his mind on that, it would probably be politically unwise, since his voters may be even more pro-entitlement than the average Republican president’s.
Besides, Trump is not ideologically committed to entitlement reform in the manner of many of the movement conservatives, such as former Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he has either driven from politics or relegated to the sidelines of the GOP. Trump’s most recent budget proposal called for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, but all parties understood that budget would never be enacted. Actually making such cuts would be another matter. The biggest remaining pot of money in the federal budget is defense, and Trump has sought to increase military spending, not trim it back. From there, things get harder. The president could try cutting many small programs, but the problem is that every line in the federal budget has a constituency—and even if you’re willing to exert political muscle rolling them, you end up with relatively small savings.
But if the president isn’t running for reelection to impose fiscal discipline on the nation, just what would be the point of another term in office?
The president has not so far laid out a real platform for a second four years, although he has signaled over the past 10 days or so that he intends to focus his campaign on racist remarks and sowing division among Americans. One reason might be that so much of Trump’s first-term agenda remains incomplete. When he was running for office, Trump promised to drain the swamp, build the wall, win the trade war, repeal and replace Obamacare, appoint conservative judges, replace NAFTA, stop free-riding allies, and stand up to America’s enemies.
For the first year and a half of Trump’s presidency, I periodically cataloged the president’s accomplishments, lest they be overlooked in the chaos. I haven’t done one of those for a while, because although the chaos has subsided (somewhat), so have the accomplishments.
Trump has had enormous success remaking the judiciary. But the rest of his agenda has largely stalled. His Cabinet acclimated to the swampiness of Washington, D.C., and then surpassed it. The wall is unbuilt. The trade war is still being fought. Obamacare repeal is all but dead, barring a revival by the courts. Trump’s NAFTA replacement, which is largely just NAFTA by a new name, is stuck in limbo. Most NATO allies still aren’t reaching defense-spending targets. Trump is conciliatory toward North Korea and seems ready to accept nuclearization, and has been measured toward Iran.