Over the past eight years, frustration with partisan gridlock has reached an all-time high. The U.S. Congress’s overall approval rating has plummeted from a peak of 84 percent in 2001 to a dismal 19 percent in 2017.

While Republicans and Democrats bickered, the average American’s life expectancy fell for the first time in over two decades and deaths by opioid overdose rose by more than 72 percent. In many parts of the country, economic conditions worsened after the recession, even as the country as a whole recovered. The dearth of opportunities in some rural areas has ignited severe –– and warranted –– anxieties about the future of cultures and communities in these locales.

While the media heralded our return to pre-recession unemployment rates, rising inequality sparked feelings of desperation in parts of the country where former President Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” seemed like unfulfilled promises.

In this environment, President Donald Trump –– the blusterous outsider promising to “Make America Great Again” –– managed to convince enough voters in electorally-important states that he could finally deliver change on their behalf. To these voters, Trump was a rock through the window in the shiny, inaccessible halls of government, a wake-up call to the arrogant elite who had left them behind.

The majority of voters didn’t buy into Trump’s promises. He lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and he entered the White House as the least popular incoming president in at least 40 years.

Trump’s proposed mandate –– to the extent that he has one at all –– is a mandate for change. Many of Trump’s supporters expressed justified anger at the lack of government action in addressing the social and economic issues that face distressed regions.

Yet the policy proposals Trump promoted as solutions to these problems –– notably trade protectionism and stricter immigration laws and enforcement –– are likely to hurt the economy as a whole without meaningfully improving the lives of the average American worker.

By instituting a border tax or other trade-limiting proposals he has proposed, Trump could in practice hurt the U.S. manufacturing sector. Every dollar’s worth of Mexican exports sent to the United States is manufactured using 40 cents worth of inputs from the United States taxing Mexican goods at the border. This would pay for Trump’s infamous wall as he proposed, but it could actually cost the United States jobs at the firms that produce the inputs used in Mexican goods, should Mexico predictably retaliate with a similar tax. 

Limiting trade is unlikely to significantly cap job losses in manufacturing. The majority of these job losses occurred because of automation and technology, which will continue to pose a greater risk to the American working class in the coming years by threatening to replace a predicted 45 percent of tasks currently done by humans.

A greater emphasis on –– and more funding for –– training for displaced workers, as well as better math and science education in public schools, can do more to help employees compete and thrive in the changing economy.

Thus far, Trump has misdirected his attention to bringing back jobs that have already left or been automated. Instead, he should focus on creating new jobs. By increasing funding for basic science research and expanding tax incentives for innovation, the government could spur the creation of new jobs, even if they can’t bring back old ones.

Additionally, both tax and health care reform could help struggling workers take home more of the money they do earn.

Yet, in order to be effective, these policies must be carefully designed and implemented. In a political environment demanding immediate change and a 24/7 news cycle that scrutinizes each political action (or lack thereof), the patience that quality policymaking requires will be hard to come by.

Already, the Senate has taken action toward repealing Obama’s health care law without introducing a replacement bill. This kind of rash decision-making may appease supporters who, after years of gridlock, want to see swift congressional action, but it is unlikely to produce the meaningful change that struggling Americans need.

If Republicans want to maintain the inroads they made into traditionally blue states in the 2016 election, they need to institute policies that will produce tangible improvements in the lives of those voters. Hasty lawmaking may score political points in the short term, but it is unlikely to deliver the change that voters demanded by electing an outsider promising to shake up the status quo.

Trump entered the White House with both a Republican House and Senate. Instead of ram-rodding through a conservative agenda in his first 90 days, Trump would be wise to work with Congress to pass thoughtful, innovative policies to help working-class Americans. While this may take longer than headline-grabbing actions like an immediate “Obamacare” repeal, taking the time to enact policies likely to make meaningful change would help both Trump’s approval numbers and the country as a whole.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

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