Six months in, the Trump White House has made some significant executive steps in advancing its agenda. The Gorsuch appointment kept the Supreme Court from shifting radically to the left. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has put new energy into enforcing immigration law, and illegal border crossings appear to be substantially down; this result suggests that a vigorous enforcement regime can decrease illegal immigration. Meanwhile, many regulations have been undone by executive order. In terms of big-ticket legislative items, however, the Trump administration has hit a wall.
One of the reasons why the Trump administration has faced such obstacles in advancing its legislative priorities is that the administrative techniques that may have worked for Donald Trump in private business have proven less effective in the White House. In private business, Trump had a reputation for encouraging competition among his staff, according to the belief that conflict leads to creativity. As a tabloid prince and reality-TV star, Trump mastered the art of sucking up the media oxygen — which he used to devastating effect in the GOP primary.
However, for a president, dominating the headlines is less important than crafting a useful media narrative. President Trump has achieved maximum saturation in cable news (a huge percentage of which consists of panelists “analyzing” the latest contretemps), but the media feeding frenzy has often paralyzed the administration. And Reservoir Dogs–style showdowns between administration factions have created the public impression of a White House consumed by chaos. While vigorous debates behind the scenes can be useful for an administration, strident public divisions risk undermining some of the key strengths of the executive branch.
In some respects, the president is the strongest individual actor in the constitutional structure. Individual members of the legislature need many other members to support their propositions, and a lonely Supreme Court justice may have great intellectual power but needs other members of the Court to write a majority opinion. But a single person can hire and fire cabinet secretaries, veto and sign pieces of legislation, and promulgate executive policy.
Because the Constitution incentivizes cooperation (a source of frustration to many ideologues), being the strongest individual actor still means that that actor is very much dependent upon others. The United States government is a vast and powerful institution, but within that institution, the president is far weaker than the head of a private company is relative to that company. The owner of a private company can do whatever he wants to that company within the bounds of the law; the president is much more limited. Without the cooperation of Congress (which often means the bipartisan cooperation of Congress), the president cannot move a legislative agenda.
On legislation, the president has one major explicit power: the ability to say no. However, the president has vast implicit powers, and one of the strongest advantages of the modern White House is the vast bureaucracy it commands. The White House has a phalanx of officials who can generate a sustained media narrative, research policy proposals, and coordinate strategy with members of the legislature. A White House consumed by factional shoot-outs, however, surrenders much of this advantage. Then, there is no unified message — just a series of spasms and spats.
Not only do fierce public divisions weaken the ability of the White House to advance a single message, but they can also detract from any message at all. The press loves a soap opera, especially when the sudsy histrionics harm Republicans, so reports of conflict within the Trump administration will crowd out all other White House messaging. Moreover, the sense of a White House drunk on vitriol also risks pulling down the president’s approval ratings, as some recent polling suggests.
Warfare within the administration also hampers the ability of the White House to recruit and maintain top-tier talent. Washington is a city fueled by ambition (along with caffeine and tax dollars), and fears of being thrown under the bus by the next tweet or leak could keep some able hands out of the administration.
Warfare within the administration also hampers the ability of the White House to recruit and maintain top-tier talent.
For decades, pundits have fetishized the presidency, casting the president as the distillation of America’s ambitions and virtues. Much of the presidential propaganda of the Obama years fixated on the president as a cool national persona. But in reality, American politics is a team sport, and the executive branch is a team within a team. The parts of an administration must be working together if that administration is to have any hope of working with its constitutional partners in the legislature to enact a domestic agenda.
It seemed when he ran for office that one potential role for Donald Trump would be to act as a catalyst for reform within the Republican party: His raucous ascent was a sign that many of the policy orthodoxies of the GOP could be updated. While a radically fractured administration may in other ways be quite disruptive, these divisions may in fact end up strengthening the hand of policy inertia. An administration that expends all its energies in internal knife-fights might become too exhausted to face the challenges that brought it to office in the first place.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.