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The anti-innovation presidency

“Innovation” is one of those Washington priorities, like “security” or “the children,” that politicians in both parties tend to describe as investments rather than spending. Even as budget wars have raged on Capitol Hill, there’s been a fairly broad consensus that funding research and development is vital to American competitiveness. The Beltway seems to churn out an inexhaustible supply of bipartisan reports proclaiming that bigger government investments in science and technology today will pay economic dividends for taxpayers down the road.

This week has been “tech week” at the White House, and President Trump has jumped onto the rhetorical bandwagon, hailing the glories of innovation. “My administration is embracing a new spirit of innovation that will make life better for all Americans,” he told a group of technology leaders gathered in the Oval Office on Monday; he doubled down Thursday, promising another group of new-economy executives that his government would “help unleash technological breakthroughs that will transform our lives.”

But Trump’s 2018 budget goes the opposite direction: It proposes the deepest cuts in innovation investments that any administration has ever proposed.

Not only does the Trump budget slash climate science and clean energy research beloved by Trump’s critics, it whacks advanced manufacturing programs and fossil energy research catering to Trump’s supporters, as well as basic science and medical research beloved by almost everyone. It’s a powerful rejection of the innovation-industrial complex, and even though Congress is likely to ignore most of it, a similarly powerful reflection of Trump’s political war on Washington elites.

Overall, Trump’s budget cuts research and development spending by about 5 percent from current levels, but that figure includes hefty increases for late-stage weapons development at the Pentagon. It would roll back non-defense R&D by an unprecedented 19 percent, taking the axe to the popular as well as the obscure. The National Institutes of Health would absorb a 21.5 percent hit, including major cuts in research on aging, cancer, infectious disease, mental health, and drug abuse; NIH grant programs would have their stingiest award rates since 1970. There would be even harsher cuts for the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA’s education funding, NOAA’s ocean research, and EPA’s science office.

The Trump blueprint would also eliminate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which oversees studies of which medical treatments actually work; the U.S. Geological Survey’s monitoring programs for volcanoes, earthquakes and the climate; and a popular Manufacturing Extension Partnership that provided technical assistance for more than 25,000 companies last year. And it would wipe out ARPA-E, the most futuristic agency in Washington, a cutting-edge incubator for energy research modeled on the high-tech Pentagon unit that pioneered GPS and the Internet.

Trump aides believe some federal investments in R&D have been duplicative or ineffective, while others ought to be handled by the private sector. And they’re still proposing $150 billion in R&D funding, which is considerably more than zero. But their main argument for spending less on innovation is simply that America


Ivanka Trump struggles to move needle on paid leave

Ivanka Trump struggles to move needle on paid leave

Ivanka Trump, who serves as an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump, is escorted by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as she arrives Tuesday at the Capitol to meet with lawmakers about parental leave. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

After meeting this week with House and Senate Republicans, Ivanka Trump is no closer to finding a sponsor for her paid leave proposal than when it was proposed in the administration budget last month.

The plan would be a tough sell even for a seasoned politician, which the president’s daughter is not, or in an administration more accustomed than President Donald Trump’s to collaborating closely with Congress. Requiring employers to offer six weeks’ paid leave has little appeal to most Republicans, and limiting the plan to new parents could be a deal-breaker for Democrats.

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Trump has said that she’s open to changes, including scrapping the administration plan altogether and starting over. But “any kind of mandate is a nonstarter,” said a Republican congressional aide.

The White House and key Republicans in Congress say it’s still early in the process. “We know how hard it is going to be,” one White House official said. “Nobody has been able to get it done before, but we are committed to it.”

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Two meetings this week — one on the House side with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and about 20 other members; the other on the Senate side with Sens. Marco Rubio (D-Fla.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and a handful of others — yielded little agreement other than to keep working.

At the Senate meeting, Fischer pitched Trump on her bill to provide tax credits to companies that offer paid leave voluntarily. That would stand a better chance of winning Republican support, but it would fall well short of what the administration plan proposes. And even Fischer’s plan went nowhere when proposed previously.

Rubio is working on an expanded child tax credit that was discussed at length in this week’s Senate meeting. Some Republicans favor that approach, saying it addresses related issues for self-employed people and small business owners who might otherwise be excluded from a paid leave plan.

“It’s a lot more broad to address the underlying issue,” said one Republican congressional aide who opposes paid leave. The aide said he expected that the president's daughter would eventually back away from a mandate and embrace the idea of a tax credit.

Rubio, who supported Fischer’s paid leave proposal during his campaign for president and has not endorsed Trump’s plan, said he doesn’t see the two approaches as mutually exclusive. “I wouldn’t view this as just one issue,” Rubio said. “Paid family leave is a part of it — I would view it broader, as what does pro-family tax reform look like?”

But it’s hard to imagine paid leave passing without any Democratic support —


Why Reince Priebus Can’t Save His Job

“Congratulations, you’ve got the worst f---ing job in government.” That’s what James A. Baker III, Ronald Reagan’s consummate gatekeeper, tells every new White House chief of staff when asked for advice about the role. In the best of times, being White House chief is so challenging, the pace so grueling, the burnout so intense that the average tenure is a little more than 18 months. For President Donald Trump’s beleaguered gatekeeper, Reince Priebus—saddled with the herculean task of disciplining the 45th president—18 months could feel like a lifetime.

Increasingly, it looks like he might not make it that long. By one account, Trump has given his chief a deadline of July 4 to fix a dysfunctional White House, upon penalty of dismissal (or, possibly, being shipped to Greece ). Priebus’ defenders have boasted lately about newfound discipline, pointing to a recent “infrastructure week.” And Priebus himself has privately complained that the White House dysfunction would be twice as bad without him. But here’s the problem: No matter what Priebus does to try to save his job, it will amount only to tinkering around the edges, because the central stumbling block is Trump himself. Until the president learns that he cannot govern without giving someone the authority to tell him hard truths, there is little any chief of staff can do.

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As it is, the Trump administration has been unable to perform the most basic tasks: issue enforceable executive orders, craft legislation, prioritize the president’s agenda or communicate a coherent message. In a normal White House, all of these functions flow from a strong and empowered chief of staff. But in the transplanted Manhattan real estate firm that is Trump’s West Wing—a scrum of advisers competing for the boss’ favor—Priebus has never been given the necessary authority as first among equals.

History is littered with the wreckage of presidencies whose chiefs lacked the power to execute the president’s agenda. Gerald Ford tried to run the White House himself, with his chief Alexander Haig sharing access with a half-dozen other aides. (Ford called this model “the spokes of the wheel,” with the president at the center.) Within a month, Ford realized it was a disaster and empowered his pal Donald Rumsfeld, a tough taskmaster, to run the West Wing with an iron fist. (Ford shipped Haig off to become supreme commander of NATO.)

As Bill Clinton’s chief Erskine Bowles told me for my book about chiefs of staff, The Gatekeepers , “When the chief does not have the confidence of the president, people can feel it, they can sense it, they can smell it—and the chief is nothing but an overblown scheduler.”

“If you want to govern,” says Reagan’s Baker, “you can’t have a dysfunctional White House. We’ve had some of those, and it’s a tragedy for the president and for the nation.”

With no real authority, Priebus has failed to help Trump govern. But the chief’s most important duty is to tell the president what he does not


How a U.S.-Russia Back Channel Came to Life

The inscription etched on the wood paneling was almost mocking, given the terrible state of U.S-Russian relations: “That our two nations never again polarize,” it intoned. “A keystone to peace in the 21st century is positive relations between the United States and Russia.”

But inside the Russian-American room of the Russian Cultural Center, in a tony Washington neighborhood, negotiators from the American and Russian governments this week sipped wine and nibbled on caviar after spending the day trying to live up to that charge—a quaint reminder of the former Cold War rivals’ warm relationship in the 1990s.

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Despite tense relations that U.S. President Donald Trump has said may be at “an all-time low,” the small group of military and civilian officials exchanged closely held information that might help determine what happened to the hundreds of U.S. and Russian military personnel lost in conflicts stretching from World War II to the Cold War and even the fate of a Russian pilot shot down over the Republic of Georgia in 2008. The so-called technical talks of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIAs—the first since 2005—were the result of a surprising new level of Russian willingness to engage in recent months, according to the Americans.

They were also an eerie reflection of how far the relationship has fallen since 1999, when the cultural center was dedicated.

On the same day participants were discussing the missing crew of a U.S. spy plane that was shot down by the Soviet Union over the Pacific in 1951, a Russian fighter jet dangerously buzzed a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea. A day earlier, Moscow threatened to target U.S. military aircraft over Syria. And the U.S. Congress was moving deliberately to impose new sanctions on Russia. Yet those involved in the talks say they also hope to be an example of what is still possible at a time when the United States is accusing Russia of meddling in its electoral politics, their militaries face a growing risk of a confrontation and the two governments cooperate in exceedingly few areas.

“There is a huge lack of trust” at higher levels, said Tim Shea, the U.S. head of the so-called Cold War Working Group, as he mingled with other guests beneath paintings of Peter and Catherine the Great, referring to the heated rhetoric. “The last few days have been pretty serious. A lot of words have been exchanged. That is not the way to get things done. This is where we sit in a room and try to get things done.”

Shea, a retired Army colonel, said he felt compelled at the start to the talks this week to urge his colleagues on both sides to set aside the suspicions and focus on their common humanitarian work. “We don’t get political,” he said, “but I thought it was important.”

It was a message his Russian counterparts also tried to impart at events throughout the week, which included the Russian commissioners’ attendance for the first time


A Declaration of Urban Independence

A Declaration of Urban Independence

On Monday, November 7, 2016, I made what I thought were the final edits to the manuscript of my latest book, The New Urban Crisis, and sent it off to my publisher. The next day, my wife and I invited our American friends to come to our house in Toronto to celebrate what we were all but certain would be Hillary Clinton’s election. We pulled out all the stops. We hung up red, white and blue bunting, and dressed our baby and our puppy to match. My wife’s sisters supplied us with life-sized cutouts of Clinton and Donald Trump, which they had literally “muled” over the border from the Detroit suburbs. At 6 p.m., when the polls began to close, we turned on the TV to watch the early returns. By 8:30, the party had come to a crashing stop. I spent the rest of the night glued to Twitter; I hardly even noticed when the last of our guests departed.

My wife and I, like so many Americans, woke up the next morning in a state of shock. Then she said something that snapped me back into focus: “As terrible as we feel, can you imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had gone the other way?”

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Trump’s unthinkable victory, I realized, was that backlash. And as emotionally unprepared for it as I was, intellectually, I wasn’t all that surprised.

The divides that propelled him into office were the subject of my book. And I’d already lived through something quite like it before, in Toronto, where I moved in 2007 to head up a new institute on urban prosperity. I had long admired the city for its progressive brand of urbanism. The renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 and grew to love it. The English actor Peter Ustinov once dubbed Toronto “New York run by the Swiss.” And yet in 2010, this bastion of progressivism elected as dysfunctional and retrograde a politician as Rob Ford—best known in America for getting caught smoking crack—as its mayor. “If Ford could be elected in Toronto,” I said at the time, “then more and worse will follow.”

Ford died of cancer in March 2016, eight months before that shocking November night. But like America’s new president, he was a product of our deepening geographic rifts. Toronto—like New York, London, San Francisco, Washington, Boston and other great cities—really is a tale of two cities. As its middle class has declined, it has fractured into a small set of advantaged neighborhoods in and around the urban core and along its major subway and transit lines, where affluent residents work in banking, entertainment and media, journalism, academia and the arts—the people I have dubbed the “creative class.” That first city is surrounded by a much larger and more sprawling second city comprising relatively disadvantaged neighborhoods, most located far from the city’s center in its annexed suburbs, where the hard-pressed small-business owners, factory workers, tradesmen and taxi drivers,

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