White House

The Neophyte

President Donald Trump announces a deal to end the partial government shutdown at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)
Overpromising and underdelivering

Donald Trump’s political inexperience turned out to be a political strength in the 2016 election. Unlike so many of his competitors, he had not been trying to discipline himself into the role of president since adolescence. For good and ill, he had fewer inhibitions about what he’d say. His verbal incontinence leads him to lie and mislead. But it also led him to be candid in a way that some voters clearly enjoyed. The campaign playbook can be rewritten every election cycle by the winners. Barack Obama’s digital outreach was hailed as genius, because he won. Trump’s ability to command free media and his repetitive sloganeering from the podium at his rallies were credited for his success.

American governance is less amenable to this kind of revision. And in office, Trump’s inexperience is more and more exposed. Was anyone surprised that in a battle of political will with Nancy Pelosi, a political lifer and the daughter of a Baltimore mayor, Trump got the short end? You shouldn’t be. This inexperience, combined with unusual and disruptive staff turnover at the White House and slow hiring throughout the executive branch, means that Trump has had trouble imposing his will on the political process. He’s had trouble even grasping the political dynamics at work.

Some Republicans should be grateful for Trump’s inability to impose his will. He’s depended on the Federalist Society to help him choose and vet judicial picks that keep his electoral coalition intact. In his first years in office, the Republican-led Congress worked on its own preexisting agenda. It spent time trying and failing to do a direct repeal and replace of Obamacare. Then it moved on to tax cuts. Trump’s contribution to that debate was to set targets for the overall corporate tax rate. This was hardly the “worker’s party” that he promised.

Now, as Democrats take control of the House and gear up for their 2020 primary, Trump has been left in a desperate scramble. His signature campaign promise was a “big beautiful wall” along the southern border. As Ann Coulter can’t help but remind him, not a single brick has been laid. By wasting two years of unified control of the government, he leaves himself in a very weak position when a future opponent points out that he is unable to make a deal.

Donald Trump invited the public to see him as responsible for the longest government shutdown in history. He threw a gauntlet down and asked Democrats to battle him in a test of will. But when New York airports started turning away flights, he caved and promised another future test of political will — that he is also likely to lose.

His lack of discipline also allows established interests to run around him. Trump called for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. (They had no congressional mandate to be there.) But America’s leading policymakers did not want to give up the American mission in Syria, and so have delayed, or even redesigned, it so that the same mission can be carried out with only a technical conformity to the president’s wishes. Trump announced a policy, but diplomats are telling allies and other actors in the region that the policy is still being formed. In this way, Trump’s presidency isn’t just unsuccessful, but risky. His lack of personal discipline results in a lack of leadership, inviting an on-the-ground emergency that could potentially spill over into a legitimacy crisis for the U.S. government.

On a policy level, Trump’s presidency is now firing blanks: Lots of noise, but nothing targeted falls down when shot. If he doesn’t up his game soon, many Republican voters who preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton, or who enjoyed the way he shook up the 2016 campaign, will conclude that he’s just not up to the job.

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