President Donald Trump is happy to boast that he slashes more regulations than any president who preceded him. He literally cut red tape in the White House in December 2017 while standing before stacks of paper representing rules.
The president may want to tread carefully on the issue as the 2020 election nears. Democratic candidates aim to turn Trump's rhetoric about regulation against him as they try to deny him a second term next year.
Trump campaigned on chopping regulations, arguing fewer rules would boost businesses and the economy. He has made some significant changes — rolling back Obama administration efforts to limit emissions from coal-burning power plants and automobiles, among other steps. The president also backed a law to scrap some bank rules passed after the 2008 financial crisis. While bank stocks took a beating in December along with the broader market, the Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF — which counts the largest U.S. banks among its top holdings — has climbed nearly 10 percent since Trump took office.
The deregulation message features prominently in his re-election rhetoric. In his State of the Union address last month, Trump claimed his administration "has cut more regulations in a short period of time than any other administration during its entire tenure."
The president has actually done more to slow the pace of new regulations, or ease enforcement of current rules, than cut them entirely, according to several experts who track regulation. But that has not stopped both Republicans and Democrats from acting like he has taken more drastic steps to slash government rules.
Whether to put new limits on companies could become a point of conflict in the 2020 election. Lacking signature achievements beyond the GOP tax law, Trump wants to attribute a strong economy — his best selling point — in part to his push to cut regulations on businesses. At the same time, Trump's rhetoric could boost one of Democrats' main arguments: that the president has crafted his policy to help big business rather than consumers and the working class.
"Inflating what he's done on the regulatory front is to his advantage," said Cary Coglianese, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and director of its regulation program. "But on the other hand, progressives will embrace that narrative too, to paint Republicans as being in the pocket of big business, of contributing to a system that's rigged in favor of the big banks, big insurance companies, big pharmaceutical companies."
The argument becomes harder for Democrats to make if the economy and job market remain strong as November 2020 nears. A recent pickup in U.S. wage growth — which had previously lagged despite solid job creation — could only help Trump's re-election case.