So, far from being a potential tyrant as many Democrats fear, Trump looks like he is heading to the history books as a weak and ineffective president, hobbled by the same checks and balances as his predecessor. He has expressed regret that he went for health-care reform before tax reform, but he will find that the latter is an even further bridge. Should the Republicans push ahead with their border adjustment tax, they will find a huge coalition of powerful and well-organized interest groups opposing them. (Note, for instance, how vociferously Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, home of retail giant Wal-Mart, has expressed his opposition.) Whatever the national interest in lowering the headline rate of corporate taxation, the organization of Congress gives these interest groups the ability to veto any measure affecting their narrow part of the economy. Ditto for an ambitious infrastructure initiative: It is that same Tea Party bloc that will be the most relentless opponents of any effort to spend federal dollars on it. And even if Congress approves, the courts and states will have a major say in how and whether projects are executed: just look at the remaining obstacles to Keystone XL getting built.
Trump could end up being a powerful and transformative president under one condition: that he breaks decisively with the Tea Party wing of his own party and pursue bipartisan cooperation from the Democrats. On the infrastructure initiative and possibly on tax reform this is entirely plausible. This would also have been possible with health-care reform, had Trump worked sincerely to fix the ACA rather than foolishly demonizing from the start what has proven to be a popular law.
I’m not counting on any of this happening, however. Trump’s instinct is to run to his red state base of core supporters for comfort and adulation, rather than seeking to govern as president of the entire country. Note that he has yet to hold an event in a state he didn’t win. He needs moreover to think carefully about the interests of his working-class supporters, rather than outsourcing policy to conservative ideologues like Paul Ryan—whose ideas would make them worse off. In Latin America, populist presidents shower their supporters with new social programs; our populist president has spent much of his early days trying to take benefits away from them.