Monday, April 08, 2019

A Historically Weak Presidency Just Keeps Getting Weaker

Donald Trump dominates the popular, electoral, and media landscapes of American politics like no other figure in living memory. Trump remains a ubiquitous presence in the daily press coverage of current events. The 2018 elections were almost entirely a referendum on Trump, with the various individual candidates running for Congress serving merely as proxy vessels for voters to register their approval or disapproval of the president amid record national turnout for a midterm. Many of Trump's supporters view him in admiring terms as something of a national savior, while his detractors accuse him of being a uniquely potent villain leading America down the road to authoritarian rule.

But in terms of actual effectiveness in using the tools of the office to achieve policy ends, the Trump administration so far ranks at the bottom among all the modern presidencies. Trump the political personality is historically strong, yet Trump the president is historically weak.

The evidence for, and reasons behind, this weakness have been catalogued by my political scientist colleagues Jonathan Bernstein (here, here, and here) and Matt Glassman (herehere, and here). One set of difficulties concerns Trump's personal qualities. This president is bored or impatient with most substantive policy questions or discussions. He seems unfamiliar with many aspects of how the government operates and uninterested in becoming educated on this point. And, crucially, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to keep his word either publicly or privately, which reduces his ability to negotiate productively with other power centers within the political system or around the world.

Another source of weakness is the executive branch surrounding the president. Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that he would select the "best people" who were "truly, truly capable" to serve at the senior levels of the government. But he has been unable to attract, or to identify, consistently skilled deputies across the various cabinet departments and within the White House itself; personnel choices frequently seem to reflect preoccupations with perceived loyalty or "looking the part" on television rather than actual talent. The high turnover rate of presidential appointees, extraordinary number of unfilled positions, excessive dependence on "acting" officials who lack the clout that comes with permanent status, and absence of a coherent policy-making process make it even more difficult for the Trump presidency to gain the deference from bureaucrats, judges, members of Congress, and other actors that is usually necessary to implement significant policy change.

Finally, Trump's unpopularity in the mass public—and the toxic levels of antipathy that he provokes among Democratic voters in particular—means that even ideologically moderate or electorally vulnerable members of the opposition party see little benefit in cooperating with the president. Trump's mediocre job approval ratings also led directly to the Democratic victories in the House last November that have further curtailed his legislative influence and handed investigative power to his congressional critics.

Some presidents suffer from a rocky start but get the hang of the job as they go on. The Trump presidency seems only to be getting more ineffective over time. Trump's greatest strength up to now has been his power within the Republican Party; other Republicans have generally been reluctant to become enmeshed in public disputes with the president for fear that their own party's voters will take Trump's side and wreak punishment on dissenters. Recently, however, Mitch McConnell responded to Trump's suggestion that Republicans turn their attention (yet again) to health care reform by flatly shooting down the president's declaration in the pages of the national press. Imagine Harry Reid doing such a thing to Barack Obama, or Bill Frist to George W. Bush, and it becomes clear what an unusual act this was for the Senate majority leader, who was surely speaking for his caucus as a whole.

It's also clear that the executive branch's management of immigration policy—a rare subject on which the president demonstrates substantial personal investment—is an outright mess. The forced resignation of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is merely the latest development in a chain of events that also included a lengthy federal shutdown that failed to secure border wall funding from Congress, the damaging revelation and subsequent public reversal of the practice of separating families seeking entry at the southern border, and the indefinite judicial suspension of the president's unpopular withdrawal of DACA protections in September 2017. Rather than identify hard-line aide Stephen Miller as a common element in his repeated failures to achieve lasting policy gains on the issue, Trump has apparently sided with Miller over Nielsen in one of many internal administration battles as Miller seeks to consolidate influence over DHS from the White House—which does not bode well for future success.

While Trump seems by now to have grasped that the job he has isn't the same as the job he thought he was running for in 2016, he hasn't managed to figure out what to do about it. If media impressions are accurate, the cacophonous frenzy of this presidency's early months—memorably marked by a parade of colorful characters constantly barging on- and off-stage—has evolved into a quieter, though not necessarily less chaotic, atmosphere structured (if that's not too strong a word) around the uneven energy of the president himself, who seems to oscillate between bursts of acute, though often unproductive, engagement and increasingly lengthy periods of retreat to television and Twitter. Even Trump's aggressive verbal taunting of potential Democratic opponents in a re-election contest that's well over a year away gives off the impression that the incumbent is somewhat unfulfilled by his governing responsibilities and yearns for the prospect of electoral competition to really get his blood flowing.

In other circumstances, a president who fails to deliver on major initiatives—and who prefers not to even show up at the office on the weekends, or in the evenings, or in the mornings—would inspire murmurs of discontent within the party whose platform forms the basis of his policy to-do list. Yet Trump has proven that the demands of today's Republican activist and voter base can largely be satisfied by symbolic appeals rather than substantive achievements. If his supporters ask of him only that he says the right things, and angers the right opponents, then it's possible for him to do the job they want him to do from the comfort of his couch at Mar-a-Lago. But as long as Trump himself continues to promise major policy change without demonstrating any idea of how to attain it, the strength that he so conspicuously attempts to project through his words will not be matched by his deeds.