PRESIDENTS ON POLITICAL GROUND: Leaders in Action and What They Face
By Bruce Miroff. University Press of Kansas. 193 pp. $29.95
Even before he honed his message of anger, disaffection and solidarity for the white working class, what powered Donald Trump toward the White House was his celebrity — as a tabloid fixation, billionaire developer, reality-television star, Twitter fiend. He sought fame for its own sake, treating life as a series of brand extensions. A majority of the same American electorate that handed him the presidency believes he is unqualified for the job. Without his constant image-making and bomb-throwing, without his ability to shock and captivate so many audiences on so many platforms, he never could have won the Republican nomination, let alone the White House.
But now he has, and if he wants to have a chance at an effective presidency, Trump will have to do something that appears contrary to his nature: He will have to cease behaving like a celebrity. Trump must relinquish spectacle, trading it in for the unglamorous business of governing.
“The obsession with communication — presidential talking and messaging — is a dangerous mirage of the media age, a delusion that inevitably comes crashing down in the face of governmental failure,” Elaine Kamarck writes in “Why Presidents Fail,” one of four recent books on White House decision-making and crisis management that I’d encourage Trump to read during the transition — if he read books. They suggest that, even in this era of the permanent campaign, a successful Trump presidency will hinge on his becoming someone else, or at least behaving like someone else. Trump the celebrity won the White House. But Trump the celebrity can’t survive in it.
All modern presidents succumb to the delusion that with just another riveting speech or evocative moment, just another dose of their personal magnetism, they can overcome political and legislative challenges, win over opponents, and enrapture the faithful. After the 2010 midterm elections, in which battles on immigration, health care and bailouts resulted in massive Democratic losses, President Obama concluded that what he needed was more theatrics. “The symbols and gestures — what people see coming out of this office — are at least as important as the policies we put forward,” he said. Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official, recalls that when President Clinton reflected on the failure of his 1993 health-care reform effort, he explained that he had “totally neglected how to get the public informed. . . . I have to get more involved in crafting my message.”
Yes, because better communication was their main problem.
There are certainly moments when the right message is not just necessary but transformative. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an initially tentative President George W. Bush inspired the nation with his unforgettable “I can hear you” shout to rescue workers at Ground Zero. “The bullhorn episode made Bush into an icon of American solidarity, pride, and defiance,” political scientist Bruce Miroff writes in his insightful study “Presidents on Political Ground.” But other imagery would overshadow even that moment. Bush’s infamous flight-suit landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, with the “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him, would come to embody the misjudgments and overconfidence surrounding the Iraq War, and when Bush gazed upon the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 from the safety and distance of an Air Force One window, Miroff writes, “an image of indifference to suffering had been added to an image of incompetence in performance.”
For Trump, whose public persona was forged through catchphrases (“You’re fired!” “Make America great again”), the risk of confusing governance and speechifying is high. This is especially so after a presidential campaign, which always rewards pure communication abilities over real expertise. “The challenge for the modern presidents is to add some governing skills to their campaign skills — or, in other words, to stop talking long enough to figure out how to govern,” Kamarck writes.
In his inexperience with the bureaucratic behemoth he inherits, Trump is not all that different from his recent predecessors. “Modern presidents find the federal government that they are supposed to run distant and unmanageable,” Kamarck explains. When President Jimmy Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw — the failed 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran — he did not realize that the service branches that needed to work together were actually terrible at cooperating (they never even had a full rehearsal, Kamarck notes) and that the military’s Special Forces capabilities had been severely downgraded after the Vietnam War. Obama might have bypassed the embarrassment of watching HealthCare.gov crash repeatedly if his administration had tasked the right agency and the right people with the right expertise to manage the technical effort.
Celebrity typically offers some degree of insulation from criticism, more leeway on bad behavior or stupid thinking. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump did not suffer the consequences of incendiary statements and revelations that would have doomed more conventional candidates — so much so that he began to regard himself as invincible, even bragging at a rally that he could shoot someone in the street without losing any voters. “Spectacle, as contrived and manipulative as it may seem, can appear to presidents as indispensable armor,” Miroff writes.
Trump’s celebrity vs. Hillary Clinton’s résumé was one of the campaign’s easy media narratives. But deep political and policy experience, by themselves, are hardly enough to make a president great. James Buchanan, who presided over a financial panic and Southern secession and is deservedly regarded as among the worst U.S. presidents ever, “may well have been the most qualified man — at least through his governmental resume — to ever run for president,” journalist Robert Strauss writes in “Worst. President. Ever.,” his new biography of the 15th president. Indeed, Buchanan’s CV was Hillary-esque, including stints as a Pennsylvania state legislator, a member of the U.S. House and Senate, an envoy to Russia and Britain, and secretary of state. But he was a lousy president, Strauss explains, for a host of reasons, some of which have a whiff of Trump to them: “a poor chooser of associates . . . pompous when he should have been contrite, oblivious to both current events and public thought, and living in a sheltered past.”
Even relatively inexperienced presidents can compensate by appointing knowledgeable advisers and Cabinet members. Recall the early praise heaped on Bush’s national security team (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest), which was supposed to make up for the former Texas governor’s blind spots in foreign affairs, or Obama’s overhyped “team of rivals” approach to building his first-term Cabinet. In Trump’s case, however, consider that Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Corey Lewandowski are among the early names being tossed around for top posts. That’s an entourage, not a Cabinet. Fun for a celeb, less suitable for a POTUS.
Strauss notes that Buchanan also assembled a team of yes men, “a cabinet that would not differ with him in any substantial way. . . . no one was telling Buchanan when he went off kilter, as he was wont to do. He would often waffle on major issues, and could easily come up on the most ill-advised side of them.”
Throughout his business career and presidential campaign, Trump has shown that he values loyalty above all else. So it shouldn’t surprise us if there is an air of the sycophantic about the team he enlists. The problem is that presidents desperately need to hear contrarian voices. Kamarck writes of the State Department analysts who imagined dire consequences should the United States invade Iraq, the Bush-era economic officials who foresaw an impending mortgage crisis and the health-care consultant who warned the Obama White House that implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s website was doomed. “Many of the most important signals come from the very government that works for the president,” Kamarck writes, “and yet modern presidents are so distant from the government they manage that, on a regular basis, they ignore the flashing lights or fail to realize that they are even flashing.”
Substantive expertise matters as much as ever because of what former Bush White House aide Tevi Troy describes as the “ratchet effect”: the notion that any action a president takes in boosting the role of the federal government in a crisis will be assumed and expected the next time around. In his book “Shall We Wake the President?” Troy delves into the disasters presidents have and will invariably face, including pandemics, extreme weather, terrorist plots, economic contractions and civil unrest. When you’re responding to real storms, not tweetstorms, it’s tough being an apprentice in the White House. Even a celebrity apprentice.
Of course, Trump may simply represent an exaggerated version of what the presidency has already become. “With the rise of national media,” Miroff suggests, “a different possibility for presidential image making emerged: the president as the country’s chief celebrity.” FDR, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and certainly Obama all combined celebrity with their politics. “A growing amount of presidential activity is akin to pro wrestling,” Miroff writes, in a comparison that should appeal to Trump. “The contemporary presidency is presented by the White House as a series of spectacles in which a larger-than-life main character and a supporting team engage in emblematic bouts with immoral or dangerous adversaries.”
It is possible that the celebrity-fueled excesses we saw from Trump during the campaign — the late-night Twitter rants, coarse language, petty feuds, improbable boasts and unlikely promises — will give way to a sober and measured commander in chief. Perhaps the trappings of the office will suffice to scratch the itch. But even if he makes that shift, will his most extreme and vocal supporters follow?
“Of all the constitutive elements of a president’s coalition, social movements can be the most difficult partners,” Miroff cautions. They are the most strident, intransigent and demanding, he explains, the most likely to push presidents beyond where they planned to go. This happened with President Lyndon B. Johnson and the civil rights movement, and Obama and LGBT rights.
The alt-right elements in Trump’s coalition are among the most organized; they are their own kind of social movement. What passions will be further unleashed if Trump doesn’t deliver for them, after they delivered for him? Will the new president take that risk?
After all, a savvy celebrity gives his hard-core fans what they want.
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