Republicans have been slow to champion women’s issues, but then along came Ivanka, and as with all things Trump the party has found a lot to like about programs they once cast aside as nanny state indulgence or wasteful foreign aid now that they have the First Daughter’s imprimatur.
The administration’s budget includes $100 million for Ivanka’s pet project, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative that aims to help 50 million women with job skills and access to credit. Who could oppose that?
“I can’t quibble with the fundamental premise,” says Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and a longtime adviser to and confidante of Hillary Clinton. Ivanka’s program has its roots in initiatives launched by Clinton as Secretary of State to boost the health and economic power of women and girls in developing countries.
“Generally these are good things to do, but at the same time we shouldn’t be cutting the budget for other women’s programs,” Verveer told the Daily Beast. “You can’t go to the workplace and be productive if your health is failing and you’re a victim of domestic abuse.”
To accommodate his daughter’s pet project and other priorities, like building the wall on the southwest border, President Trump would cut the SNAP program (better known as food stamps) by a third, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by a third.
“It’s as though the right hand says one thing, and the left says another,” Verveer says of the contradictory messages associated with funding Ivanka’s program while cutting other popular and established programs with track records. “This is something that nobody disagrees with fundamentally, but where do you go with the money, how do you measure success, what other programs do you build on? This initiative doesn’t have a lot of specifics.”
Congress last year passed the bipartisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, which includes a micro-credit gender bank, long promoted by Clinton. How does Ivanka’s program mesh with that?
“Her work is superficial,” says Shilpa Phadke, who runs the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “She has this role as an adviser, she has a very visible presence and immeasurable resources. There’s this public narrative that she’s this moderating influence where she works behind the scenes, but she’s done very little to drive an agenda and create an infrastructure and really press for coordinated, concrete policies.”
The slapdash quality of Ivanka’s work may be at odds with serious policymaking, but then her father’s entire administration is a rebuke to how things have been done. Trump’s budget was pronounced dead on arrival, which is not unusual for White House budgets in the modern hyperpartisan era. Even so, his got even less respect than was shown to President Obama because the cuts are so blatant, so at odds with what Trump the candidate said he would do, and so potentially politically explosive, like cuts to Medicare and other safety-net programs.
“She wants us to focus on her signature issue and ignore that USAID is being cut by a third. It’s hard to take her seriously when she’s promoting this one thing while her government is propagating these draconian cuts,” Phadke says.
The White House has also finally nominated a candidate, Kellie Eckels Currie, to serve as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, a post created by Obama in 2009, and which has been vacant since he left office. Currie is the current representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is awaiting likely Senate confirmation.
“People are going to disagree on a range of issues,” says Verveer, appointed by Obama as the first to serve in the post, “but she is serious, tough and credentialed.”
With 2020 and Trump’s reelection approaching, “It’s not lost on them that they need to appeal to suburban women,” says Phadke. “But they’re doing it in such a way that it’s hard to talk about it seriously. There’s no real meat beyond the politics.”
Women who supported Clinton’s initiatives are conflicted. They want to support what might be a new awareness among Republicans that helping women in developing countries contribute to the economy is not just good for women, it’s good for all of society. They want to support the president’s daughter, but at what cost? How many other programs that work toward a social good have to be set aside to make room for Ivanka?