A golden opportunity for Trump and the GOP

Story highlights

  • Sweeping GOP victories give party a chance to make major policy changes, writes Julian Zelizer
  • Trump, Republican-controlled Congress could move to restore conservative majority on Supreme Court

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Shortly before the election, I wrote a column laying out some of the big questions that would be answered on Election Day. One that loomed large was whether there would be a governing moment -- a rare period like what we saw in 1965-1966, 1981-1982 or 2009-2010 -- when major policy change is possible.

The answer is a resounding yes.
    On Election Day, we witnessed the victory of an incoming president who will likely be able to get a lot done in his first few years in the White House. His party controls both houses of Congress and he will be in a strong position to appoint a Supreme Court justice who could restore the 5-4 conservative majority that existed before Justice Antonin Scalia's death.
    Although our political system provides many checks and balances, in this particular circumstance President-elect Donald Trump has the potential to make huge changes before the midterm election. The next few years could be an unsettling roller coaster for the Democratic Party and a legislative celebration for the GOP.
    What can Trump do?

    1) Legislate

    The most powerful tool President Trump will have at his disposal is legislation. Nothing offers presidents the kind of legacy-building victories as much as laws passed by Congress. The imprint of the legislative branch gives much greater weight to any program than the executive branch does. While few Americans remember the signing statements or rules changes that have been part of a presidency, the imprint that Congress makes on policy through legislation endures.
    And this was the big story of the election -- not just that Trump won, but that Republicans retained control of Congress as well. Usually new presidents soon learn that their power to shape deliberations on Capitol Hill is quite limited. In an era of intense polarization, significant legislation is often impossible to achieve without united government.
    While there has been a lot of talk about all the divisions within the GOP, what the election and the post-election showed was that the Republicans are not as far apart as people think. Republicans tended to vote Republican in most red states. After the election Republicans (including the Bushes) have been lining up to show their support for our new commander in chief.
    Trump is likely to find strong and unified support on many issues that emerged in the campaign.
    Most important will be economic deregulation, especially in the area of energy markets. There is strong consensus on the GOP side over tax cuts that have been at the top of Trump's agenda. Moving on these issues would quickly solidify his political support in core parts of the party.
    There is even some support for Trump's proposed half-trillion dollar infrastructure proposal, which could help him expand and solidify support for him in states like Michigan. Some Republicans like Paul Ryan are open to considering such a plan, which was a non-starter with President Obama. Of course the devil is in the details -- especially how they would pay for it.
    Senate Democrats will have the power of filibuster, but Republicans have the reconciliation process which they have promised to use aggressively. Items placed in the budget reconciliation process only require a majority vote rather than the super-majority of 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
    The biggest risk with legislation that aims to dismantle existing programs is that there could be more political fallout than Republicans anticipate,
    Obamacare has points of unpopularity, but more than 20 million Americans are now depending on its benefits. Taking those away could easily generate support for Democrats in the midterm elections, and Trump's comments saying that he is open to keeping parts of Obamacare suggest that he recognizes that risk.

    2. Use Executive Power

    Executive orders are a tool that presidents have used with increasing frequency, particularly as it has become harder to get Congress to act. President Obama started as a reluctant warrior but increasingly relied on executive orders as he faced immense Republican opposition on virtually every bill. President Trump appears to be willing to use this power aggressively. He thinks like an executive and is someone who will find the political process to be cumbersome.
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    And with executive power he can go very far to carry through on his promises. He will be able to go even more aggressively than Obama on deportation policy and vastly increasing resources for enforcement. He can also systematically undo environmental regulations and bring back the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which he has promised to do..
    He could also seek to renegotiate the Paris Agreement on climate change and the nuclear arms deal with Iran. The temptation for him to flex executive muscle will be enormous and there is little doubt he will feel any hesitation about doing so.
    Of course, using executive power also carries risk that the next president could come in and tear up Trump's orders on day one. This is the situation that Obama is facing today. Conservatives also have shown under Obama how the courts can be an effective means of tying up executive action.
    And Trump faces another political challenge. The fears that exist about his thirst for power — some critics have called him authoritarian -- will be brought up each time he uses an executive order.

    3. Take advantage of the bully pulpit

    This is a tool of presidential power that is often overblown. Although we like to think that presidents can have a huge impact on public opinion, social scientists have shown that the president doesn't really have the capacity to move public opinion very much.
    Americans now have many forms of entertainment on television competing for their time, as opposed to the situation 50 years ago when there were a handful of TV channels, most of which would likely have shown a president's address to the nation. Presidents have struggled to figure this communications challenge out in the age of cable television and the Internet.
    The increasingly partisan press also makes it harder for presidents to convey their message without the information being instantly molded through a narrow lens.
    But Trump might be able to do more with the bully pulpit than others who came before him. During the presidential campaign, he demonstrated a mastery of the modern media environment, using new tools such as Twitter in ways that have not been done before. He understood the dynamics of cable and online news outlets, and figured out ways to tailor his statements and to craft narratives that were extraordinarily difficult for reporters and commentators to resist.
    Trump can reinvigorate the power of the bully pulpit in the modern media. He could be the president who uses social media with the same kind of impact as FDR used radio and Reagan used television. If he does, this can be a huge tool that he can use against his opponents and in favor of the legislative changes that he intends to make.
    So hold onto your seat. The conditions are right for change, if Trump can take advantage of this moment to transform American policy in ways that have been impossible for many of his predecessors.