Byron York: Congress leads Trump down wrong path

What is the most popular thing Donald Trump has done as president? It actually came before entering the White House when, last December, President-elect Trump announced he had persuaded the Carrier Corporation to keep in Indiana hundreds of jobs that had been slated to move to Mexico. A short time later, Politico ran a story headlined, "Trump's Carrier deal is wildly popular." Imagine a headline like that about anything else the president has done.

Compared to the big economic picture, the Carrier matter involved a tiny number of jobs. And there was quibbling about Carrier's intent. But Trump's involvement sent a clear message: I was elected to fix the economy, to bring more and better jobs to Americans, and that is going to be my first priority as president.

Now, however, in the middle of his first 100 days in office, Trump has gotten bogged down in a complex, time-consuming, and unpopular fight over another issue — repealing and replacing Obamacare — that, while a key Republican priority and a Trump campaign promise, is not at the very top of the public's concerns.

New to Washington and with no experience in public office, Trump has become a prisoner to the House Republican leadership — or more precisely, to the complicated procedural requirements of the House and Senate, and the judgment of the GOP leadership that must operate within those boundaries.

All across the capital, politicos are arguing about what House Republicans should do next in the Obamacare fight. Can they prevail in the Budget Committee? How much damage has the CBO report done? Can the Freedom Caucus be brought aboard? What about the moderates? And reconciliation? The three-step process?

It has become mind-numbingly complicated. And perhaps the answer to all those questions is one simple sentence: Republicans are working on the wrong thing. And the Republican president is allowing himself to be distracted from delivering early and often on his core campaign promise of improving the economy and bringing jobs to millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul Ryan has made clear that Obamacare had to come first on the legislative calendar because of the requirements of reconciliation in the Senate, and because the Obamacare replacement's changes to the tax code have to be taken up before the larger budget and tax reform. And, of course, Hill Republicans have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare for years. So the House has dived in.

"They found themselves stuck in this legislative quagmire in terms of the sequence of what has to happen," notes a well-connected GOP strategist. "Since they have to do this through reconciliation, they have to do it before the budget, and have to do it before tax reform."

Meanwhile, Trump's jobs agenda will have to wait. Can anyone imagine candidate Donald Trump roaring to a raucous campaign rally that, 'We're going to bring your jobs back — big beautiful jobs" but then going on to explain, "Of course, we'll have to accommodate the House schedule…"

Trump will sell tax reform as a jobs-creating measure. He will do the same for trade, and for an infrastructure measure, if one ever comes. But even though Republicans have long described Obamacare as a "job-killing" law, the fact is that voters do not see fixing the Democrats' troubled health care scheme as a first-tier job creator.

"[Fixing Obamacare] can have a positive impact on cost of living for people, but it is still not jobs and the economy," says the GOP politico. "People want it addressed, but the number-one thing is still the number-one thing."

Every poll during the campaign, and then the election day exit polls, showed jobs and the economy to be the voters' chief concern. Polls today say the same thing. And to the degree that voters place hope in Trump's presidency, it is because they believe he can make the economy better.

The most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, like others, found that Trump's job approval rating is historically low for a new president. But the pollsters also found that many Americans are optimistic about the years ahead. Fully 60 percent said they are hopeful and optimistic about the future, versus 40 percent who said they are fearful and pessimistic.

Forty-one percent of those surveyed told the Journal-NBC pollsters they believe the economy will improve in the coming year. That might not seem like a huge number, but — along with the 42 percent who said the same thing last month — it's the highest in four years.

Among those who see the economy improving, a large majority believe it will be as a result of Trump's economic policies.

Yes, Trump pledged to repeal Obamacare, although he went long stretches in the campaign without paying much attention to it. (Last August, after watching a week of Trump speeches in which he barely mentioned Obamacare, I wrote a story headlined, "Obamacare is failing. Why isn't Donald Trump talking about it?") But there is no doubt that during the campaign Trump's first priority, and his most popular priority, was jobs and the economy.

But now, the CEO who promised to bring better jobs and higher wages is trying to tiptoe his way through House rules that most people outside the beltway — and many inside, too — don't even understand.

Meanwhile, Washington is rife with intrigue over the Obamacare fight. It has brought back talk of the old tensions between Trump and the GOP establishment, especially Speaker Ryan. Every player in Republican politics or conservative media has some advice for the leadership. Trump loyalists worry that it is harming his brand. And House Republicans push ahead. "Failure is not an option," GOP whip Rep. Steve Scalise told Sean Hannity Tuesday.

It's been enough to get many Republicans all worked up, ready to do battle for as long as it takes. The only problem for the newly-elected president is: It's the wrong fight. The headline to this story is "Congress leads Trump down wrong path." To pursue his own agenda on his own schedule, Trump will have to do the leading.

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