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Why Trump Will Double Down on Foreign Policy in 2019

Peter Harris

Politics, Americas

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania Trump attend a commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War One, at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Simple: It's the path of least resistance.

As if one wasn’t enough, there will be two Trump presidencies starting from January. With the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, the White House will find it more difficult than ever to pursue a productive domestic agenda. Tax cuts, immigration reforms, border security, changes to healthcare—none of this will happen under divided government. As a result, President Trump’s attention will drift inexorably toward foreign affairs, an arena in which presidents usually enjoy a freer hand to implement policies of their choice. The Trump presidency will thus be bifurcated: hobbled and ineffective at home but forceful, energetic, and eager for “wins” abroad.

It was the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky who, over fifty years ago, coined the “Two Presidencies" thesis. He pinpointed several reasons why presidents enjoy more success in foreign policy than domestic policy. First, foreign affairs tend to be more consequential than domestic issues, especially when questions of national security are at stake. Wildavsky argued that presidents approach the international realm with President Kennedy's assertion in mind that while domestic policy "can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." This leads them to adopt stances that are intended to serve the national interest instead of narrow partisan ambition.

Partly because the stakes are so high, Wildavsky argued that lawmakers give presidents more leeway in international affairs than they would ever entertain for domestic matters—allowing presidents to navigate foreign policy without having to pay undue attention to the home front. But even when Congress is not in the mood for working alongside the president, the Constitution gives the Executive branch sweeping powers to act unilaterally in foreign and defense policy—powers that modern presidents have not been shy of using.

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