Nearly 100 days into the Trump Presidency it appears as if the Donald is over his head. Sure, he shot a few missiles into Syria, and met with some foreign leaders. Yet for all the talk of “making America great again,” and “draining the swamp,” this administration has been at best quiet, at worst ineffective or incompetent.
This should not be a surprise. During the campaign I used the metaphor of a car salesman. The salesman can make lots of claims, talk up the car, and his job is done once the buyer signs the dotted line. Trump is a good salesman. But when you actually need to service the car, the salesman is irrelevant. The mechanic in the service department has no desire to talk up the car; she’ll tell you what’s wrong, and even note if a particular model has problems the salesman didn’t mention. You would never want her replaced by the salesman – you need her to keep the car in working order.
Yet Trump made the sale and now he’s in charge of the service department and doesn’t really know what to do. He’s used to giving orders and having his staff follow through (ready to fire them if they fail), but that’s not how the Presidency works. Business leaders in general have problems moving to executive positions in government; this seems especially so with Trump.
The health care fiasco is this in a microcosm. With all the bravado of a salesman Trump declared that the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would yield a better system that would “benefit everyone.” Yet reality was messy. People would be thrown off insurance, the public was worried about losing aspects of what they liked about the ACA, and Republicans were split on just how to “repeal and replace.”
At that point, the President had to become a master of detail, someone who could sit down with the stakeholders, negotiate, cajole, and make the deal. The trouble is, Trump has never really been a good deal maker. He’s a salesman; his deals have historically been poor, which is why he has so many failed businesses and has often flirted with bankruptcy. He assumed his staff would do the hard work, he didn’t realize he actually had to do more than just talk and posture. The result: an embarrassing failure that left Washington insiders amazed at the apparent incompetence of GOP leaders and especially the President.
Now as the Republicans turn to his promise of tax reform, people are pessimistic that anything can be done. With Trump’s approval ratings down around 40%, he lacks political capital to pressure people to comply, and he appears to lack the patience to learn the details and work through the issues.
The missile strike on Syria is another example. While a few people said that this represented “toughness” on the part of the President, it’s easy to order attacks. Obama, Bush, Clinton, and really every President in recent history have ordered strikes. The Syrian strikes were especially impotent – the US warned Russia, who assured Syria was not caught by surprise, and they did little damage. Overall, it’s hard to see much change from the Obama foreign policy to the Trump policy, despite his promise to “put America first.”
That leads to the most incongruent aspect of the Trump Presidency – his populist message is at odds with his style of governance. He quickly ordered an end to the “drain the swamp” rhetoric, and has stocked the White House with lobbyists and insiders. His nationalist guru Steve Bannon is finding himself overshadowed by Trump’s mainstream son in law, Jared Kushner. Simply, beyond rhetoric President Trump has done nothing that really jives with his campaign. The salesman behaves differently when he runs the service department.
Yet anger at Trump from the left, along with support by xenophobes and white supremacists on the right still resonate. Republicans hope the President’s mainstream approach to governance will convince moderates that he isn’t some kind of dangerous radical. But already Breitbart news and some on the “alt.right” have warned Trump that if he veers too far from his rhetoric, or if he were to dump Bannon, they’d turn on him with a vengeance.
Simply, Donald Trump doesn’t have what it takes to be President. He lacks patience, discipline, and is too insecure – focused on how the media portrays him. Rather than lead a revolution in American politics – some kind of rejection of globalism in favor of strident nationalism – he’s appears like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. He’ll enjoy the pomp, offer rhetorical flourishes, but lacks the capacity to have a disciplined approach to governance.
This could change – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump want to turn the administration around, and they are likely a moderating influence. This could be early day stumbles; perhaps he’ll learn on the job. But at this point Donald Trump, for all the bluster, appears en route to becoming “the do nothing President.”
Update: This article in the “Daily Beast” chronicles an effort by the “adults” in the White House to gain control and stabilize the Presidency: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/16/new-power-center-in-trumpland-the-axis-of-adults.html?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning