Donald Trump promised coal miners he’d bring back their jobs. He vowed he has an “absolute way” of defeating the Islamic State very quickly.
Will he achieve these commitments? Probably not. Will it matter to most voters, especially his supporters? That depends.
During the presidential campaign, Trump was caught in lies, bad behavior and contradictions that would have been lethal for another candidate. It didn’t much matter, though it’s worth remembering that he did lose the popular vote by more than 2.8 million.
As president, the Teflon Don routine will be harder to maintain. He won’t have Hillary Clinton as a foil, and those financially struggling, working-class Americans who rallied to him will expect improvements in their lives.
Presidents usually are held accountable for specific commitments. In selling the Affordable Care Act, for example, President Barack Obama promised, “If you like your health care plan you can keep it.” That wasn’t true for millions of Americans, and it plagued him and Obamacare through this year.
There’s evidence that voters take some of Trump’s promises more literally than others. At a focus group last week for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, Ohio voters indicated that they expect him to deliver on the economy, jobs and wages. But they didn’t really think he’ll build a wall along the southern border, let alone with Mexico paying for it or will quickly eliminate the violent jihadists of Islamic State.
That makes sense. It’s reasonable to think that voters care most about the economic and health care issues that affect them directly. If Trump should bow to congressional Republicans and renege on his campaign promise not to cut Social Security or Medicare benefits, look for a backlash. Repealing Obamacare, as he and his congressional colleagues have promised to do, is full of political land mines.
Trump has told coal miners to “get ready to be working your asses off” in an explosion of new jobs. But it isn’t going to happen. Coal-mining jobs have been in decline for six decades, under Ronald Reagan as well as Obama. The fall of coal has nothing to do with China, contrary to Trump’s claims, but with technology and better energy alternatives from natural gas to wind and solar.
So coal country is likely to be disappointed. But it’s a small slice of the U.S. job market, so there won’t be a great deal of political fallout. That won’t be the case if Trump can’t make good on his vow to generate 25 million jobs overall in the next decade, with higher wages to boot. That’s an ambitious goal, but not a quixotic one — at that pace, he would exceed the job-creation record of Reagan and Obama but trail Bill Clinton’s.
If he comes close, it’s likely to overshadow a multitude of political disappointments. If he doesn’t, economically disadvantaged Trump voters could turn on him.
Republicans dominate Washington these days, and some of them also are setting challenging markers. Trump’s Treasury secretary nominee, Steven Mnuchin, said “there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class” in next year’s tax bill. Given the eagerness of congressional Republicans to reduce tax rates on high incomes, that won’t be easy to achieve. It will, however, be easy for lower income voters to check.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has declared there will be an interval between repealing and replacing Obamacare so that people can get “better coverage at a better price.” That’s a benchmark that will be tested.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.