The Presidency Is Proving Tough for Trump
No President-elect except perhaps Donald Trump himself has been so ill-prepared for the Presidency. Then again, maybe the job is now so big nobody could ever do it well any longer.
Much of what the media tends to focus on these days is over President Trump’s support of policies few outside of his shrinking base believe in. Next to that is blame for what many see as his lack of professionalism, consistency of policy, truth-challenged rhetoric and lack of experience in leading this specific kind of organization. Because of those factors Trump is often perceived and discussed as having failed, if not as measured by all independent media outlets and political pundits then at least by more than half of them.
On some of these grounds, those watchers from outside the White House may be exactly right.
On those items Trump in theory could control, such as in actions for deadlines he himself set in executive orders he himself created and signed, he is not doing well. Reports demanded from within his own Cabinet and the Defense Department, ones that again – in theory – he could have coordinated with them so the deadlines were properly crafted and feasible, could have been on time. Yet according to an outside media review by one outlet, only 23 of the 52 deadlines Trump himself has set – using his own staff – have been met.
There’s the matter of six different reports related to the President’s order on Cybersecurity, which required 13 different federal agencies to respond by August 9. Only three responded to a request for information saying the reports were on their way.
In what was surely a higher priority for the President, another important milestone which ties into Trump’s proposed immigration bans has been missed badly. The State Department, itself managed by Rex Tillerson, the former Exxonmobil Chief Executive who clearly has some background in running large and complex organizations, was supposed to have published a list of immigrant and nonimmigrant visa issuances every month starting in March. The first four months of data came out on time, but for some reason July’s report was delayed.
The Commerce Department’s plan to move to use American-only materials for pipeline construction was supposed to be out on July 23. It also still has not surfaced, despite its importance to the U.S. fossil fuel industry, an industry Trump and his team strongly support, and despite concerns raised that demanding ‘American-only’ in this industry might significantly increase pipeline construction costs.
Trump also planned to initiate several tariffs against other countries, based on what he had labeled as unfair trade practices on their parts. That included a tough restriction on steel imports, but it too has been delayed, this time in part because many U.S. manufacturers want inexpensive imported steel, and depend on it for the businesses to be successful.
Trump’s early executive order made January 25 re-
garded border security, which demanded increased deportations, building of a border wall and hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents. Far from hiring more such agents, the total number of Border agents has gone down by 220 people since the Executive Order was put in place.
There are similar issues affecting Trump’s objectives for putting in place:
A new policy regarding Cuba, a subject the President had criticized Barack Obama for having been too ‘soft’ about
A study about promoting ‘energy independence’ via a better-managed mix of energy types than the Obama administration might have wanted
A so-called modernization of environmental review policy, to streamline decisions of this kind
A plan to overhaul America’s infrastructure, something Trump had said much about during his campaigns and which also had much stronger bipartisan support than perhaps any other part of his agenda.
In each of the above cases, all of them were items under Trump’s control, or the control of his cabinet members. So – provided he had appointed the right people for the job in each case, and had authorized the hiring and structuring within each organization to complete the work, Trump’s group should have been able to get these done. He of course failed to deliver on almost everything since coming into office.
Some of what Trump is having trouble with is a lack of absolute power in his role as President. It is a common problem, one that most Presidents in recent decades have dealt with by appointing people with strong political or organizational ties to the already-existing infrastructure.
One example of this from the recent past is Obama’s appointment of Timothy Geithner, a former central banker who many criticized as being an insider, to run the Treasury Department in 2009 when the U.S. and the world were in the worst fiscal crisis since the 1930s depression era. Although the specific actions Geithner took also ended up wrongly protecting many white-collar criminals who should have gone to jail over the crisis, Geithner’s appointment did at least ensure that there was somebody at the helm with knowledge of the infrastructure and politics of such a big finance job.
Trump did not do that for most of his cabinet ‘hires’, instead picking either cronies he already felt he could control but who were not qualified in other ways, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry, or business people such as Rex Tillerson of Exxonmobil to run the highly complex and internationally-political State Department.
Another type of failure by Trump is the lack of consistent and clearly-stated policies in each situation. Trump himself is such an opportunist, wanting to ‘wing it’ in the moment, to be unpredictable, that when it is more important than ever to show predictability in a big way, he tends to fail.
A third type of failure is Trump’s inability to grasp the complexity of world politics, as well as its ability to shapeshift in a moment on both micro and macro levels. It was never his strength and he has failed to hire those to support him with the combination of such knowledge, skill in interpretation, and ability to influence the mercurial President.
With those kinds of mistakes, Trump should certainly take a major share of the blame for failing to lead effectively on those issues. Where he could have coordinated better, he let plans get set by dictate rather than forethought. Where he could have listened more, he chose to lecture others. Where he could have brought up politically-savvy experts to fill key positions, he often brought in ones without the right backgrounds or temperaments to do the jobs effectively.
Beyond those, however, are issues such as are represented by Trump’s inability to get a new healthcare plan in place to replace what Trump had labeled as the Obamacare disaster, or to get a restructured tax code in place that Trump felt would make life easier to operate and compete for America’s corporations.
In both cases, Trump did enter office with strong support from the Republican party, who themselves were
enjoying one of the biggest and strongest majority rules in both houses of Congress than for a long time. For both he also came in aligned with a Republican leadership as to what needed to be done, at least from a high level. Trump was also more than prepared to delegate the details of the rework of the health care plan and the tax code to the very Senators and Representatives who had been clamoring for this day themselves.
Yet in the end, the Republican leadership failed Trump. The Republicans, who had spent many years complaining about Obamacare and the tax code, turned out to be much like dogs who had chased after a car barking and, once they caught it, had no idea what to do. Neither did Trump, of course, but then the specifics of the new plans for each were always best handled by the so-called experienced experts from within Congress. There no one was ready with a plan at all.
Part of what is broken here is that in the modern era, much of what seems to work most effectively when campaigning as the ‘out’ party is to paint oneself mostly as against the ‘in’ party. That is part of why the Republicans were not ready when President Trump took the helm and was more than willing to sign almost anything they might have agreed on together, just to check it off as being done.
An even bigger problem in both cases is the inability of the U.S. Congress as it is currently managed to do advance alternative-scenario planning to get ready for possible futures. There should have been a ready alternative to Obamacare when Trump arrived, just as there should have been a new tax plan proposal. Not only were neither plans prepared, there had been virtually no discussion of what they needed to be.
What that did is left it to the President, as seems to be the case currently at least, to have to create policy for both, sell them to the American people and Congress, and guide the policies’ passages through Congress. For Trump, this is one case where to be able to have the ability to create those would have been a tough job for even the most versatile, intelligent, and skilled leaders, especially considering the complexity of the situations under review. Trump does not have that skill, granted, but it is unlikely that anyone else who might have made it to the Oval Office – or will in the future – would have that skill either.
With the U.S. Congress so ineffective as a planning or operating organization, this puts the President in a terrible bind. Thomas Jefferson reportedly said that he and those who wrote the U.S. Constitution with him intended for the U.S. Congress to be inefficient, in part to avoid changing positions too quickly on any specific subject. That may have worked at one time, but there now need to be ways to respond to a faster-changing world that operates on a much bigger scale than the ones even imagined by the Founding Fathers.
What we seem to be left with now is a political version of “We’re going to need a bigger boat”, the words Roy Scheider’s character said in the 1975 movie “Jaws”. It appears that the only way to govern now is to find some way to overhaul how the U.S. Congress does its planning, simultaneously tied to a much different way of staffing and organizing the Cabinet-level positions, and the virtual requirement of having a President with a IQ in the stratosphere. t U.S. Government as defined in the U.S. Constitution may have finally reached the point of being completely ungovernable.
All that, for once, regardless of his many shortcomings, is definitely not the fault of President Donald Trump.