Perhaps in a sign that the White House is beginning to understand the folly of simply claiming that everything is going fantastically well, a senior official tried a new approach last week: he framed the chaos as part of the kind of work in progress celebrated in Silicon Valley. “It’s a beta White House,” Axios wrote in summing up the interview.
That’s unlikely. I think a better read is Dan Drezner’s analysis that President Trump is particularly bad at realizing what he doesn’t know, and therefore will be particularly unable to improve things. And there’s no sign of improvement so far.
Still, it’s worth considering the possibility that the president will wake up one morning soon and realize just how bad things are, and take action to improve. That’s what Bill Clinton did (well, not just in one day) after his own rough transition and first days in office, and he wound up with a well-regarded presidency after a miserable start. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter’s White House never really did operate very well, and his presidency never recovered from a poor start.
If Trump did take Clinton’s path, he’ll still have squandered two important resources: Time and reputation. The latter can be restored, although not easily; the former is just gone.
Yes, it’s only been 10-plus weeks mostly lost, or about one-fifth of one year of a four-year term. But not all weeks are created equal for a president. There’s no upcoming election to distract everyone. Congress is (normally) unusually receptive to a freshly inaugurated president’s agenda. Even when new presidents are not popular, it’s fairly normal for many Americans to give one a lot more leeway than they might later on. The idea that the first 100 days are all-important is certainly an exaggeration, but it’s based on some real facts about how the presidency and how Washington works. Early losses hurt the president’s reputation more than later ones.
Moreover, Trump is so far behind in so many ways that even a rapid improvement would still leave him in awful shape. In Congress, within executive-branch agencies, even within the White House, competition for the agenda tends to grow more fierce with the intervention of outside events and fixed deadlines (such as the need to keep the government funding and increase the debt limit).
This hardly means the president’s legislative chances are fully sunk. Clinton wound up with several wins even after Republicans gained majorities in both chambers of Congress two years into his presidency. But his best chance is probably gone.
A large part of a president’s ability to influence members of Congress, bureaucrats, state governments, interest groups, his party and even judges is what Richard Neustadt called the president’s “professional reputation.” This is about what elites think of him, not voters as a whole. What do they think of his ability to do his job? Can they rely on his word? Is he willing to fight hard for what he wants? Do his friends prosper and his enemies suffer? As Neustadt says, the people the president deals with “must be convinced in their own minds that he has skill and will enough to use his advantages.”
Trump has, in just over 10 weeks, thoroughly destroyed his own professional reputation. He’s constantly backing down from positions he sets out forcefully. Constantly, of course, failing to tell the truth. He demonstrates no mastery of policy, or even basic competence. His own White House constantly leaks unflattering stories about him.
He’s even managed to squander in record time something all new presidents share: The vague notion that he must have some sort of magic touch for winning even if it’s not obviously evident. If it wasn’t gone earlier from his setbacks on the travel ban and over some of his personnel choices, Trump’s defeat over the health care bill buried that one for good. Any new reputation as a winner he’s going to have to earn.
The Clinton example in particular shows that earning a better professional reputation really is possible. But it can come at a cost. Clinton lost so many fights in his first two years that Republicans convinced themselves he could be rolled on anything, and many Democrats feared that was correct; it took two extended government shutdowns in 1994-1995 for Clinton to change people’s minds.
To recover his reputation, and to avoid losing any further time, Trump would have to do what I and others have been urging upon him from the start: Bring in an experienced, capable chief of staff, and empower him or her to run the White House properly, including letting go the current leaders of various factions within the presidency. Even if Trump can’t clean up his own personal act, that would go a long way towards righting the ship.
Bill Clinton never did, after all, learn very much personal discipline, just as Ronald Reagan never learned the details of policy, but both of them often had a well-run White House which could cover for the president’s weaknesses and use his strengths.
- This is one of the strange things about the presidency; because the constitutional presidency is so vague, our expectations of what presidents do (and when they do it!) can become “facts” that presidents must take into account.
- This all assumes something we can’t know: that the current investigations into Trump/Russia won’t reveal anything so devastating that he can’t recover regardless of anything else. But short of that, reputation and political standing matters. The same facts can yield very different reactions depending on how well the president is doing otherwise.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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