The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘I’m sitting waiting’: When the president isn’t interested in being president

President Trump. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

As we approach six months since President Trump’s inauguration, we have a better sense of how he uses the tremendous power of the office. To be sure, any executive would struggle in the face of the many crises facing the administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But in both making and executing laws, passiveness to the point of abdication is a growing hallmark of Trump’s presidency.

Take Trump’s approach to legislation. After Senate Republicans’ first failure to push through a health-care bill, the New York Times reported that until very late in the process, “the president was largely on the sidelines as the fate of one of his most important campaign pledges played out.” With the Senate trying again, the president has shrunk back even further. In an interview with The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson on Wednesday, Trump showed us how he views his role in the health-care debate. “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand,” he said, “waiting for our senators to give it to me.” Twice more he cast himself as a passive actor: “Now we have a President that’s waiting to sign it. … I’m sitting waiting for that bill to come to my desk.” Even as he acknowledges that “it would be very bad” if Senate Republicans fail, he suggests there is no role for him in getting a bill passed.

The president has been similarly uninvolved on foreign policy. Where past presidents — of both parties — have reserved final say-so over troop levels in war, Trump has delegated that tremendous responsibility, giving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authority over the size of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This comes after six months with no new strategy for the Afghan war — a conflict the United States has been in for more than 15 years. Also missing is a coherent policy for the Middle East, China or for pretty much any other part of the world.

Trump’s apathy is also shown in the slow pace of executive-branch appointments. Of the 564 positions that require Senate confirmation, 374 still have no nominee. Many secretaries and their departments have been stuck waiting for key positions to be filled. The inertia is so total that it can only have come from the very top. And while doing less may ease the burden on Trump’s shoulders, the resulting sluggishness hurts the rest of us.

The effects of Trump’s disinterestedness are exacerbated by the decades-long trend toward a more powerful executive branch. Nineteenth-century America had more than a few presidents whose role in policymaking was mostly to sign laws that Congress passed. But that was by design: Congress, not the president, was supposed to handle lawmaking. This attitude extended into the 20th century: In 1908, senators were infuriated when Interior Secretary James Garfield dared send them an already written bill. Warren Harding was nominated in 1920 in part because he was trusted to “sign whatever bills the Senate sent him and not send the Senate bills to pass.”

The New Deal’s expansion of government and the Senate’s disastrous isolationism before World War II opened the door for a more powerful executive branch — power that presidents since have usually expanded and rarely retreated on. Once the country might have been unaffected by an essentially absent executive. Now the presidency’s importance means it’s crucial that the person occupying the office be actually involved in governing. There are good reasons to argue that the pendulum has swung too far to the executive, but Trump’s inaction is not due to philosophical issues with the balance of power among government branches. There is no constitutional conflict over which branch controls decision-making in war, for example; the only reason Trump has delegated it is disinterest. The crises will continue to pile up: The debt ceiling and the 2018 budget (and corresponding threat of another government shutdown) are two areas where a president would normally get involved. It’s more likely, however, that Trump will continue to abdicate his responsibilities, with a growing cost to the country.