In the past few months, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about the recent presidential election, as I am sure you have, too. These conversations inspired this column.
By the time this column is published, Donald J. Trump will have been president for a few weeks. Because I am writing this in early January, I cannot know any specifics of what President Trump has done in the first few weeks of his presidency, but I will make some general predictions and commentary, with the understanding that apologies (or self-congratulations) for my predictions may be forthcoming in a future column.
I have no intention of using this column to engage in any sort of partisan politics. My goal is to make this a discussion of the current political climate and a reaction to the many comments I have heard since Election Day.
Categorizing the Country
Many of us are wondering what a Trump presidency means for the U.S. A number of proposed policy changes could affect the water and wastewater industry. But it seems to me that many people’s reactions have been emotional rather than analytical.
The emotions fall into one of three categories:
- Excitement about a momentous election and anticipation over the changes that may be ahead;
- Fear that the country has made a mistake; or
- Curiosity over what lies ahead, but with little idea of any specific course the administration will take.
Perhaps you recognize one of these reactions.
One of my friends, who I would characterize as being politically left of center, was distraught and shaken over the outcome of the election. He never thought Trump had any chance of winning and was certain that we had set ourselves back 50 years in our progress on the environment, education and equal rights.
Another friend, who is politically right of center, also had an emotional reaction but hers was a reaction of excitement and anticipation of new possibilities. She felt we had taken steps toward removing barriers that held us back on the economy, jobs and energy independence. They are two smart, educated individuals with different viewpoints on what happened.
In my view, however, neither will ultimately be proven to be right, and the outcome, in aggregate, will be somewhat less dramatic.
A Foundation for Change
Our democracy is designed to be cumbersome and work slowly; there is no switch in Washington that can be flipped to make instant change. The Founding Fathers were intelligent and sufficiently forward-looking to understand that any concentration of power was to be avoided. They resisted making George Washington a king, and in Trump we have not elected a monarch, but a president, with all the checks on power that come with that office. Except in cases of national emergency, our legislative and executive apparatus has rarely ever lined up fully behind any president’s full agenda. Each policy and legislative initiative will still be fought for and debated with efforts to align support and overcome opposition. None of these truths have changed in this past election.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama came into office with what he believed was a mandate for change, and he presented a sweeping agenda across many areas, including environmental and social issues. He said that his election had ushered in a “new dawn” and “change had come to America.” This, of course, made his supporters happy and his opponents nervous. Eight years later, Obama and his supporters certainly will point to many achievements, but I think even Obama himself would admit that he was not able to achieve all the changes he wanted to.
My point is not about the success or failure of the Obama administration, but rather the contrast of what seems possible and what is practically achievable. Obama made it clear that his eight years in the White House changed his own perspective on what is possible. In November 2016, he said that being president is like “being a relay runner—you take the baton, you run your best race; and hopefully by the time you hand it off, you’re a little further ahead; you’ve made a little progress.” This statement shows a sobering contrast to the rhetoric—on both sides—of 2008.
Trump will face the same challenges as president, but his cabinet likely will pursue a different set of priorities. For example, it appears that we will have, in two agencies important to readers of this magazine, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and energy secretary with substantially different views than those who preceded them. These new administrators will succeed and fail at making regulatory changes, thus disappointing some and encouraging others.
Everything will take longer than expected, as it always does in Washington, and hard and fast campaign pronouncements will, through the compromise and deal-making that are fundamental to our way of governing, change, soften, be delayed and, in some cases, be derailed. Trump will, as all presidents have, face unforeseen urgent challenges that will further slow and derail his plans. But he will advance the baton in his own way and in his own direction.
Regardless of how you felt after Election Day, take heart. For those of you who were happy, congratulations. For those of you who were fearful, my condolences. But to all of you, I will say that there will be no absolutes; neither proponents nor opponents of Trump will see all the changes they fear or hope for happen. The truth will be something in between, and the nation will survive and continue to thrive.
For those of you in that middle “curious” category, congratulations to you, too. There will be no shortage of events to watch, ponder and pique your curiosity. Perhaps you will get more of what you want than anyone.