Now that the Trump candidacy is official, it isn’t too soon to consider what his presidency might actually be like, without the heated rhetoric from both camps. Here’s how Trump himself sees the job. Maybe it is how he runs his businesses, but I don’t know enough about that to comment. In any case, the following insight is taken from his own words and those of his trusted surrogates in conversations – never denied – with Paul Ryan, John Kasich and Newt Gingrich.
First, actually setting a detailed policy agenda and getting it through Congress will be delegated mostly to House Speaker Ryan, with assistance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Likely Trump will establish and promote some high-level concepts, like refocusing international trade agreements, strict control of immigration, and undoing many of Obama’s executive orders. Running things at the nuts and bolts level, both domestically and internationally, will be handled by Vice President Pence acting as Chief Operating Officer and assisted by the Cabinet. So, what remains for Trump himself? Apparently not a great deal either operationally or strategically. Presumably he will oversee and intervene if he sees anything veering off course, and he will also take the bully pulpit when needed.
This isn’t an entirely new concept of the Presidency. Ronald Reagan did this to a large degree, and to a much lesser extent so did George W. Bush. However, I believe that Trump has in mind pushing the envelope quite a bit. He is an energetic and active man, but he will be in his seventies and delegating a lot of the work of the most demanding job in the world is simply common sense. When matters land on his desk in the Oval Office, Trump espouses an intuitive decision-making approach. It has worked exceeding well for him in his business experiences and he sees no reason to abandon it now.
I don’t know if this administration philosophy will be known and understood by the voters. I doubt it. But if it were laid out boldly, it would be interesting to see how it would be received. To some degree, this could mollify many in the Republican base who warily support their novice candidate. And it might even calm some of the exaggerated fears of his opposition.
But what of his numerous wild statements masquerading as policy: The Great Wall of Mexico, deporting millions of undocumented aliens, questioning our continuing support of NATO, printing money as the solution to the national debt, and so on? He has said himself, and it is believable in terms of his business experience, that these are just opening positions in a negotiation. When your automobile dealer quotes the MSRP on a new car, do you really think he expects and plans to get that?
An aloof management approach can succeed when the President sets the tone and the overall agenda. But every presidency runs into the unexpected, unplanned and threatening event. Dwight Eisenhower expressed it best, from personal experience. He noted, “The nakedness of the battlefield when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and clamor and terror of war is comparable to the loneliness – at times – of the presidency. These are the times when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action and then – all alone – make his decision.” The intuitive presidency will run up against this unyielding reality and may – probably will – come up wanting.
So, a Trump presidency might not be as bad and dangerous as some fear, but that would depend upon the unlikely happenstance of a prolonged period of domestic and international tranquility. Do you really want to bet on that?
In sharp contrast, Hillary would probably conduct a fairly standard Presidency, likely modeled on her husband’s eight years in that office. She won’t delegate much responsibility outside of her long-time advisors and perhaps to Vice President Kaine. We can expect thorough, though necessarily slow and tedious, decision making. But I simply cannot erase from my mind an image of Secretary of State Clinton in action.
Five years ago, a group assembled in the White House, possibly in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. Apart from President Obama, participants included Secretary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and other top military and security personnel. The Arab Spring was exciting everyone with the promise of a new dawn of democracy in North Africa. But that evil dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was resisting and threatening to crush the nascent freedom fighters in the eastern part of Libya. He had long been in our sights for his depredations at home and abroad, although in recent years we seem to have reached an accommodation of sorts. Hillary, by her own account, was the principal architect of the proposal to oust Gaddafi and save his people from slaughter. Read the insightful retrospective in the NY Times here.
In my mind, I see grim but pleased faces around the table as they foresaw this effort, their Christian impulses and democratic fervor on full display. Details remained to be planned, but this meeting led inevitably to the chaos we see today. Here is where my mental scenario abruptly halts. Why did no one, and particularly Hillary Clinton, say “Whoa! Haven’t we just been through this? We deposed Saddam, with the same belief that we would be welcomed by a grateful populace and that democracy would bloom on the arid sands of the Middle East. And how did that work out?”
In any case, neither the intuitive nor the cautious approach to presidential action will always succeed. Both can lead to disastrous mistakes. Only the most successful Presidents have mastered both and have generally recognized which was needed in a particular instance. So here is my forlorn prediction. We live in dangerous times. Threats abound. The world’s economy is sitting at a point of precarious stability where the slightest jar could push us into crisis. At times, fast and resolute action will be essential; at other times precipitate action will result in long-lasting damage to our interests and well-being. Whichever candidate wins in November, we likely face the danger of a failed presidency, the consequences of which are unpredictable and frightening. I hope I am wrong and that the quote often mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismarck is true, that “a special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States of America.”