Things are changing in Washington… and not just at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Political newbies watched the fireworks at the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday night. Elderly women prepared for their first inauguration. One family had brought their daughter to Washington to witness the moment that Donald Trump was sworn in.
And Washington regulars – the politicos, party hacks and think tankers who are here all year round – are feeling unsettled. In part this is the natural response to a change of party at the top. But it is also the result of Trump’s extraordinary style of politics, which is sowing fear among lobbyists who must try to navigate his impetuous manner and Twitter rants.
For the time being, many Democrats have left town altogether, unwilling to be any party to celebrations. Others face an uncertain future. ‘It feels like it is the turn of someone else now,’ said a veteran observer at a launch party for Axios, a new media venture dreamed up by Politico founder Jim VandeHei. Much of the talk among lobbyists was about finessing the tactics they will need in Trump’s aggressive world.
Trump has scored a series of extraordinary successes by hectoring big businesses into promising to keep jobs in America. It started with the attack on the Carrier Plant in Indiana, which planned to transfer 2,000 jobs to Mexico. They ended up apparently agreeing to keep 1,000 at home after Trump made a personal intervention. ‘The word is now out that when you want to move your plant to Mexico or some other place, and you want to fire all of your workers from Michigan and Ohio and all these places that I won, for good reason — not going to happen that way anymore,’ he said during his first news conference last week.
Then there was a Twitter rant directed at Boeing. He said a $4bn bill for building the next generation of presidential aircraft was too expensive and should be cancelled. A similar protest at the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F35 project sent that company’s share price into freefall.
So I have some sympathy with the big pharma lobbyist I met at the party. His industry is in Trump’s firing line. What little we know of plans to replace Obamacare includes negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to bring down the cost of drugs, passing on the savings to patients. And Trump’s negotiations seem to involve firing off a string of public demands, whipping up public anger and dominating the news cycle. ‘Getting away with murder,’ is how Trump has summed up the pharmaceutical pricing structure.
Who wants any of that? Who wants to be the company that sticks its head above the parapet? Who wants to put themselves in Trump’s sights? Who wants to wake up at 6am to find themselves the target of a Twitter rant and watch their share price turning red on the news tickers? Lobbyists may find that for a while they will need to keep their heads down. That’s the new reality that Washington’s cosy world has entered. And it may be no bad thing.