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To say there has never been a presidency like the presidency of Donald Trump is to state the obvious.
We have had obnoxious presidents before (Andrew Johnson was especially combative and insulting). We have had presidents who cheated on their wives (Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and who knows how many others). We have had presidents with little experience (most recently, Barack Obama). We have had presidents who ran corrupt administrations (Harding was in office during the Teapot Dome scandal and Richard Nixon turned the Committee to Re-Elect the President into an operation devoted to break-ins and skullduggery). And we have had presidents who obstructed justice (Nixon, once again).
But Trump will be remembered for rolling up into his one presidency the sins of many. Add to the above list of presidential problems a persistent sense of chaos stemming from the president’s own lack of policy clarity and the constant churning of top personnel and you have a presidency that is well outside of normal. All these things make it tempting to see Trump as sui generis—there have been none like him and there won’t be any like him in the future.
Based on this century’s track record, the nature of the presidency is in crisis for reasons not at all unique to Trump.
But that is probably too simple. When Trump leaves office, the presidency will likely return to something that seems more normal. Yet there are aspects of his presidency that have troubled previous twenty-first century presidents as well. Indeed, based on this century’s track record, the nature of the presidency itself is in crisis for reasons not at all unique to Trump.
It is important to clarify here that this is not yet a constitutional crisis. The institutions the Founding Fathers created to check executive power have stood the test of time remarkably well. While there is no doubt that Trump harbors the most authoritarian tendencies we have ever seen in a president, Congress has stopped him on the repeal of Obamacare, the Courts have stopped him on some of his immigration initiatives, and his own appointees have often curbed or “explained” some of his most outlandish statements. His sole legislative achievement, the tax bill, is so second nature to the Republican party that Trump could have slept through it and still gotten a tax bill. And while constantly railing against the press, Trump has not yet sponsored legislation to change the libel laws nor has he moved to nationalize CNN or any of the other “enemies” he sees.
Where the presidency is in crisis is in an area that is not unique to Trump, just more extreme. Indeed, Trump is simply a symptom of a much bigger problem facing the modern presidency: the inability to govern a large and complex executive branch. Trump’s many sins aside, the presidency today requires a serious reboot away from the obsession with communication and towards the complex and boring business of government.
Scholars are fond of summing up presidencies; from the imperial presidency of Nixon to the impossible presidency of Jimmy Carter to the hidden-hand presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But until recently, negative characteristics of the presidency did not necessarily mean that the outcomes of the given presidency were bad.
Eisenhower had a clumsy, confusing oratorical style but he managed the transition of the United States from a mid-level power to a super power. Nixon was imperial and corrupt to the point of abusing power and yet he was a quite competent president in many areas of domestic and international policy such as the opening to China. Clinton got himself in one heck of a mess by having an affair with a White House intern and yet his presidential performance was strong enough that he beat conviction in the Senate after his impeachment in the House. And then he made history when his party actually won some seats in the 1998 midterm elections, confounding the more normal pattern where an incumbent president loses seats.
Thus, in spite of their many faults, many U.S. presidents have been able to govern effectively. Our twenty-first century presidents, however, don’t seem nearly as talented—even as their reputations sometimes improve. As scholars such as Sam Kernell and George Edwards have argued, modern presidential candidates are rewarded for their ability to persuade the public; once in office, however, these presidents often fall into the trap of thinking they can talk their way around any problem in government.
The modern preoccupation with communicating leaves little time for understanding the federal bureaucracy.
This preoccupation with communicating leaves little time for governing, including time consuming tasks such as conducting an intra-agency review of a problem or entering into serious explorations of options with members of Congress. This inability to govern is most evident in the problems twenty-first century presidents have had managing their own executive branch. President George W. Bush, for instance, never recovered politically from the disaster that was the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina. President Obama suffered from the Veteran’s Administration scandal that unfolded during his administration as well as the botched Obamacare rollout.
The modern federal government is a vast and complex organization that, taken together, employs close to three million people. In an organization that big, something is always going right—but something is always going wrong too. Yet almost no one in the modern presidential orbit pays attention to executive branch functioning, frequently even choosing to ignore the knowledge that the executive branch possesses. As a result, our modern presidents miss the successes, fail to see the warnings, and end up surprised by the massive failures. Presidents either resort to benign neglect or even sometimes see the government as the enemy and try to shrink it uniformly across the board. Both approaches end up with bad policies at best and utter catastrophes at worst.
President Bush, for instance, would have been better served by a robust inter-agency review of options in Iraq. The State Department, specifically INR (Bureau of Intelligence and Research) was sidelined in the war planning even though its analysis and predictions on Iraq were spot on (as they were a generation before in Vietnam). Similarly, Obama erred badly in assuming that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could implement his health care legislation without a significant boost in their overall capacity, and he badly underestimated their ability to design and operate a complex set of websites.
Much too often, these failures to fully involve or understand the federal government’s resources and capabilities end up blowing up in the face of the president. It is no wonder that modern presidents sometimes feel that, rather than being the head of it, the entire organization is out to get them.
Six years into the Obama presidency, an aid expressed the frustration as follows: “The president is nominally in charge of so much that it often feels like the power dynamic inverts, and that the White House exists to take blame for the misdeeds of others—very often agencies or bureaucrats over which you have essentially zero control.”
These problems have been particularly evident in Trump’s administration. From a purely political perspective, for instance, Trump’s early executive order on immigration could have been a quick and decisive win. By calling simply for tightened rules at the borders, it could have been a down payment to the millions who voted for him hoping for tougher immigration policy.
But the order side-stepped the normal review process and was written carelessly and without input from the Department of Homeland Security, which had to implement it. As a result, it turned into a chaotic political mess as well as ineffective policy since, until recently, it was tied up in the courts.
Trump perfectly embodies our modern tendency to choose presidents for their ability to charm and amuse—not govern.
Now in his second year, the distance between Trump and the government he ostensibly runs has only gotten worse. He has also experienced an unprecedented divergence between his own wishes and those of the cabinet secretaries he chose.
On NATO his national security advisors have “no clarity” as to what Trump’s expectations are for the alliance. On Puerto Rican debt forgiveness, he has been contradicted by his budget director. On negotiating with North Korea, he was undercut by his first Secretary of State. On privatization in the Veteran’s Administration, he has been resisted by his (former) Secretary of Veterans Affairs. On transgender people in the military, he has been slow walked by this Defense Secretary and contradicted by the Commandant of the Coast Guard. And on his favorite topic, the border wall, he has been contradicted by his chief of staff.
Many of these people are now gone but the pattern seems likely to persist given Trump’s policy shallowness and the absence of control over the bureaucracy. In another effort to show forceful and early leadership, Trump served up a series of executive orders, most of which reversed executive orders from the Obama Administration. And yet reversing all but the most recent ones (so called “midnight regulations”) requires entering into an entirely new regulation process, which can take months or even longer. That process can be helped along by presidential appointees and yet the Trump Administration has been historically slow to fill those positions.
Although the Trump presidency is in the middle of many other crises, including Russian influence in his campaign and his relationship with a porn star, the inability to understand the fundamental machinations of the federal government bureaucracy is not unique to Trump. The longer standing problem of the modern presidency is the inability to master the enormous executive branch of government they inherit.
A president incapable of governing is a president who will oversee our government’s descent into chaos.
Getting through the Trump presidency will not be easy. He is a master at controlling the agenda and dominating the public discourse, and as such, perfectly embodies our modern tendency to choose presidents for their ability to charm us and amuse us on the airwaves and on the Internet. Lost in twenty-first century presidential politics is any real evaluation of a candidate’s ability to govern.
This should be of concern to the conservative who wishes to tighten up the borders and to the liberal who wants humane treatment at the borders. It should be of concern to the conservative who wants to cut federal spending and to the liberal who wants to increase spending on the social safety net. Both voters must not lose site of the fact that modern presidents inherit an enormous government. And a president incapable of governing is a president who will oversee our government’s descent into chaos.
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