Whose Mandate is it Anyway?

Bald eagle seal questioning first 100 days

What do Americans expect in the first 100 days of a Donald Trump administration? An FTI survey of 2016 voters provides insightful, if not surprising, results.

In a typical election year, a political party that maintains control of Congress and wins the White House — such as occurred with the Republican sweep in November — is assumed to have a mandate for pursuing its party's platform in the first 100 days. But 2016 was anything but typical.

So, is there a mandate?

To understand how voters interpreted the 2016 election results related to the policy agenda for President Trump's first 100 days, FTI Consulting conducted a survey of voters in early December. The findings clearly demonstrate that Americans are frustrated with Washington, expect change, and believe their priorities must be put first in all policy decisions. This voter "to do" list suggests an anti-status quo mandate — or it might be said, a Trump mandate to shake up the status quo, the so-called "drain the swamp" mission.

The top two issues for voters in determining how they voted were "jobs and the economy" (26%) and "putting Americans first" (19%). Not surprisingly, Trump voters are even more dialed in on the two issues: "putting Americans first" was the top priority at 30% and "jobs and the economy" was right behind at 29%. More than simply of importance, these results represent how all issues are likely to be framed in a Trump Administration.

But interpreting the issues as license for throwing the baby out with the swamp water is a mistake. Voters express surprising sentiments about other aspects of the 45th President's agenda that suggest more nuance than a complete overhaul. For legislators, businesses, and others with government interests, these sentiments serve as a signal that navigating policy during the Trump Administration will be tricky and require a bold way of thinking that we have not seen in several administrations.

Surprising Results

One of those nuances has to do with Congressional gridlock. Although Republicans now control both the legislative and executives branches for the first time since 2004, 62% of voters want the Democrats to compromise with Republicans instead of creating further frustration in Washington, signaling support from both sides of the aisle. Even among Clinton voters, there is debate as to whether Democrats should compromise to end gridlock (41%) versus 50% who think they should serve as a check on Republican-sponsored legislation.

One issue heartily endorsed across all party lines is the need to make prescription drugs more affordable. Americans make this the highest priority for Trump of all those tested in the survey (88% important), despite being a backburner issue during the campaign. Ultimately how this plays out is far from certain, but Trump recently announced his intention to negotiate directly with Big Pharma to lower Medicare drug prices.

Corporations on Notice

Although Trump has advocated for the rollback of government regulations to stimulate the economy, voters have a more tempered view of the President's economic and financial policies. With 54% indicating that corporations "game the system," voters show a mistrust of Corporate America and want big business to be held accountable for its actions instead of an all-out "Wild West" approach.

More than 6-in-10 (61%) 2016 voters identify regulation as being useful, but to a limit. For example, 59% lean towards repealing the estate tax, but 48% want to keep Obama era regulation on Wall Street intact (33% want repeal). Similarly, 48% want to preserve the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency created by Obama to oversee big banks and Wall Street (32% want repeal).

What kind of message does this send to big business? Perhaps this: Voters are willing trade some regulation rollback as long they gain reciprocal job growth.

Strategic Action Required

The election of Donald Trump clearly ushers in a new world in Washington while leaving many questions unanswered about how he will implement his policies and what shape they will take. Will Trump be able to follow through on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA, and if so, what will it mean for multi-national companies in agri-business, the auto industry and energy? Will Trump challenge EPA regulations as promised and spur more domestic production and how will it affect the renewable energy market?

One thing is clear, corporations looking to take advantage of new opportunities in GOP-controlled Washington need to heed the two-dimensional message that sent Trump to the White House: Put Americans first and create jobs. The ability to position priorities across these two critical elements while navigating Trump's Washington will require an aggressive three-pronged approach to stay a step ahead:

1. Be Prepared for Anything

As seen multiple times since the election, President Trump can shine a spotlight on a company with one Tweet, which in turn can affect that company's stock price or plans. Companies flying under the radar may suddenly find themselves center stage. A public or government affairs approach is recommended to be on the offense instead of scrambling on the defense.

2. Seize the Moment to Make Your Case

Companies with grand ideas or ambitious plans that they've been holding back on due to regulation may find opportunity to go forward now. In the new environment, a company that doesn't have a seat at the table to protect its interests may find itself on the menu.

3. Gather as Much Information as You Can

In the coming months, it's ill-advised to try to guess the ways in which Washington will operate. More so than ever before, companies need context to make informed decisions about how to move forward.

Obama made a theme of "change" central to his 2008 campaign. The 2016 election took that theme, flipped it, and expanded the ways in which Americans expect to be treated that Washington is only beginning to grasp. As the FTI survey reveals, however, voters do not perceive change as outright rejection of Obama's policies. They perceive it as a shift in the way things get done — with their needs placed front and center.

© Copyright 2017. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

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