So far, the big takeaway from Donald Trump’s first weeks as president is that he intends to keep his promises. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to rebuild the military, cut federal spending, and stay far away from entitlement reform. The New York Times reports that his first budget delivers on all those promises, for better or worse:
President Trump will instruct federal agencies on Monday to assemble a budget for the coming fiscal year that includes sharp increases in Defense Department spending and drastic enough cuts to domestic agencies that he can keep his promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, according to four senior administration officials.
As the Times’ reportorial team notes, a White House budget is almost entirely a political document. Congress creates budgets, not the White House, and the lawmakers can take the White House plan as much or as little into consideration while drafting it. Barack Obama’s budgets were dead on arrival on Capitol Hill after the 2010 midterms; Republicans routinely embarrassed Obama by holding floor votes on his budgets, which rarely garnered any Democratic votes.
That won’t happen with Trump while Republicans control Congress, of course, but that doesn’t mean that all of these cuts will make it through committee either. Nor does that appear to be the point of this budget. Tomorrow night, Trump will give his first address to a joint session of Congress, an unofficial State of the Union speech, as one is not required from a president until after his first year in office. Trump will emphasize his intent to honor campaign promises:
Mr. Trump’s top advisers huddled in the White House this weekend to work on his Tuesday night prime-time address. They focused on a single, often overlooked message amid the chaos of his first weeks in the White House: the assertion that the reality-show candidate is now a president determined to keep audacious campaign promises on immigration, the economy and the budget, no matter how sloppy or disruptive it looks from the outside.
“They might not agree with everything you do, but people will respect you for doing what you said you were going to do,” said Jason Miller, a top communications strategist on the Trump campaign who remains close to the White House.
“He’s doing something first, and there’s time for talk later,” Mr. Miller added. “This is ultimately how he’s going to get people who didn’t vote, or people who didn’t vote for him, into the fold. Inside the Beltway and with the media, there’s this focus on the palace intrigue. Out in the rest of the country, they are seeing a guy who is focused on jobs and the economy.”
News about government can be roughly divided into two categories: substance and process. Both matter for different reasons, but it’s fair to say that process stories matter a lot more inside the Beltway and with the media than outside of either. Personnel issues, White House Correspondents Dinners, and admission to gaggles and briefings are process stories that don’t matter a lot to those outside of the insiders. What matters to voters outside that bubble is substance — the actual policies, and the reality of having a president who works to keep campaign promises.
Team Trump understands that better than the media and Beltway do, at least in these first few weeks. The process stories need to get under better control to keep from presenting too much of a distraction, but the substance will overshadow process if Trump can deliver on it. That’s why CPAC turned into a love fest this past week — not because conservatives have surrendered to Trumpism, but because Trump is delivering substantively on the conservative agenda.
That’s not going to last, though. The ObamaCare repeal will involve entitlement spending, and a full repeal will require some reform of Medicare. That’s when the fracture points might start becoming apparent between the White House and Capitol Hill, and when conservatives and populists might start getting tense. Some of these promises will eventually produce this kind of conflict, and then we’ll see just how far substance goes in keeping voters happy, and whether process might overwhelm it.