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Trump’s impossible task when it comes to the budget and tax cuts

President Donald Trump
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President Donald Trump's speech to a Joint Session of Congress Tuesday night will be a de facto State of the Union address where he will discuss his specific budget and tax plans for this year and beyond. And from what we know about those plans already, the key components of that plan will be increases in defense and infrastructure spending, tax cuts, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and paying for all of that with significant spending cuts to other federal agencies and programs.

Yeah, that's an ambitious lineup. But it's that last part about spending cuts that probably has a lot of inside the Beltway types laughing out loud. Hey, any given president can convince Congress to pass a tax cut and increase spending. Presidents can arm the military and win wars. A president can even inspire and successfully get this country to land a human on the moon. But, make major cuts to government spending almost across the board? Good luck.
That's because no White House team in modern history has made any significant and enduring cut to the federal budget or the size of official Washington. Ronald Reagan couldn't do it, George W. and George H.W. Bush couldn't do it. And most of the Democrats in office since FDR sure didn't seem like they even wanted to do it.

President Reagan couldn't drop the ax in D.C. in a lasting way because he was a little too trusting of the Democrats in Congress. The result was a couple of compromises that Reagan regretted later because they boosted the size of the government and its deficits. The Bushes were too much a product of establishment Washington to slap it down too harshly. The result of that was the first President Bush caving into Democrat tax hike demands in 1990 and the second President Bush responding to the 9/11 attacks by expanding the size of the government massively with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Even the more combative and nasty Richard Nixon couldn't resist expanding the overall size of government when he saw that doing so would help him beat the Democrats at their own entitlement game.

But the Trump team might be on to something experts on the political class have known for years. That is: The real reason why major cuts don't get made is that establishment figures in Washington have convinced themselves and all the "experts" that the American people won't stand for any real cutbacks or eliminations of government programs. Of course that's not true. Look closer at polls that suggest that myth and you see that voters reject options like "cutting government aid to defense, education or health care." Those statements are simply too general in nature. A deeper dive into years of surveys shows that most Americans do support eliminating individual programs within the defense, education, and health and human services departments. And they even back supposedly more controversial ideas like increasing the age requirements for Social Security and Medicare. The political class has protected itself and its desire for ever-expanding government by glossing over this truth.

The Trump team seems to be aware of this fact. In hopes of making surgical cuts within departments, it has reportedly connected with the conservative Heritage Foundation and its blueprint for doing just that. That blueprint includes slashing "corporate welfare" programs like the Economic Development Administration, and the Minority Business Development Agency. Also on the block in the Heritage plan are cuts for Justice Department programs like the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Environment and Natural Resources divisions.
And the Department of Energy would flat out eliminate the Office of Electricity, and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The Heritage plan targets a lot of other programs within different departments, but you get the idea.

"Just because the Trump team has a demonstrated a greater desire than previous administrations to make these significant cuts and changes, it doesn't mean it will be successful. For one thing, official Washington isn't going to roll over and play dead. With such a small Republican majority in the Senate to work with, President Trump is going to need to get an awful lot of establishment politicians to agree to make cuts to their own political industry."

OK, so maybe the Trump team will get voter support in this effort. And maybe it really has a plan. But support or no support, blueprint or no blueprint, why does anyone think President Trump might be able to succeed in this area where so many others have failed? One word: disdain. If there's one thing the Trump team is doing convincingly day after day, it's proving that it truly dislikes, distrusts, and disrespects almost every trapping of official Washington.

That disdain shines through from combative White House briefings to President Trump's decidedly non-diplomatic tweets. Remember, this is the very public and constant persona for the Trump administration as opposed to the very rare public disdain any other president has ever exhibited. And that includes Nixon. Senior White House Adviser Steve Bannon has made no secret of his plan to "deconstruct" regulation and agencies.

But will desire and planning be enough? Just because the Trump team has a demonstrated a greater desire than previous administrations to make these significant cuts and changes, it doesn't mean it will be successful. For one thing, official Washington isn't going to roll over and play dead. With such a small Republican majority in the Senate to work with, President Trump is going to need to get an awful lot of establishment politicians to agree to make cuts to their own political industry. And that's just the other politicians. The voters might be getting cold feet, too, as the recent boost in approval for Obamacare in the polls seems to show.

And that brings us to what is key to the entire matter: effective messaging. President Trump will be speaking in front of a Joint Session of Congress Tuesday night. But if this historic slashing of government is going to happen, he's going to need to make a very simple and strong case for it directly to the American public. It's going to have to be something of a "mad as Hell" moment that's infectious enough to get the public mad enough to frighten the politicians listening to the speech in person to get their budget axes chopping.

With America not currently in a major war or in the midst of a major recession, riling up the public in this way to support such major cuts seems almost impossible. But don't forget that Americans in 30 out of the 50 states elected Donald Trump to be as combative with establishment Washington as possible. And while elections are easy and governing is harder, it sure doesn't seem like the nation's mood has calmed down much since Election Day. President Trump is going to have to tap into that anger considerably to make sure the one truly unique and important part of his budget agenda has a chance.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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