What are we seeing in Donald Trump’s presidential transition so far? The emerging outlines of a bipolar presidency.
I’m not attempting a clinical diagnosis here. Maybe a better description is a Jekyll and Hyde administration. The president-elect is alternately making good choices (such as retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as defense secretary) and horrible ones (Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development); sounding themes of national reconciliation and sounding crazed on Twitter; attempting magnanimity (opposing prosecution for his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton) and rubbing it in (attacking presidential rival Evan McMullin and basking once again in chants of “Lock her up!”).
Trump’s personnel choices seem designed to either reward personal loyalty or embody a certain perception of competence — the competence of generals who know how to give orders and of billionaires who know how to make money. Failed politicians, in this view, need to be schooled. Never mind that the habits of command are not immediately transferrable to some of the main tasks in a democracy — persuasion, compromise and public policy innovation.
This is clearly the direction of strong-hand democracy; just give the real leaders free rein and a few years. A little less James Madison and a little more Lee Kuan Yew. But it is Mr. Madison who still sets the rules, making a snap-your-fingers-and-demand-results approach to leadership more likely to end in frustration and failure than in lasting damage to American institutions.
Meanwhile, this theory of the Trump presidency leaves a policy environment more fluid and open than any in my political lifetime. Apart from a few vivid campaign promises on immigration and infrastructure — which have also been renegotiated since the election — Trump has radical freedom of action. He owes no one, holds no definite ideology and will be forgiven even the worst heresies by his supporters (at least for the moment).
So, for example, it is possible that Trump will pursue the most ambitious, controversial redefinition of the federal role in helping the poor since Lyndon Johnson — block-granting Medicaid and most other welfare spending, and tying the remainder to work requirements. Or Trump could find this contentious, time-consuming debate a distraction from other priorities. He could choose, instead, to give governors more flexibility on Medicaid requirements, block-grant a few programs, increase the earned-income tax credit, experiment with enterprise zones and push for his daughter Ivanka’s child-care and maternity leave proposals.
There has been little real guidance from Trump himself. He has said that the welfare system provides incentives for “sitting there doing nothing” (which is not really true of many programs). Referring to health care for the poor, Trump told TV doctor Mehmet Oz: “There is a percentage, a fairly large percentage that can’t afford it. . . . We’re going to take care of that through the Medicaid system. . . . We’re not going to let people die on the streets.” His instincts seem mixed.
And Trump’s convictions on welfare policy may not even matter much in the end. His large tax cuts and commitment to a balanced budget may force nondefense discretionary spending — only about 16 percent of the budget — to be a repeated blood donor, until it is pasty white and weak.
The openness of Trump’s policy options, however, is currently a boon to lobbyists, consultants and advocates of all stripes. If ever talking with the right person at the right time with the right message has been important, it is now. Almost nothing has yet been ruled in or ruled out. Tea-leaf reading is at a premium. But who can possibly predict what will be in President Trump’s budget address to Congress in February? Who can know what Trump does not yet know himself? In the period between now and then, the identity of a presidential administration will be determined, in many areas from scratch.
How Trump’s manner of doing business will translate to the office of the president is equally difficult to predict. He has shown a willingness to violate norms of diplomacy and dignity normally enforced by a sense of priority. He seems caught in a cycle: a few days on message, then a conspiratorial or bullying statement or tweet, then a scramble by Republicans to solicit intervention from “the family,” who give the president-elect the political equivalent of lithium and get him back on message before the next manic stage. Republicans are now finding strategic brilliance in this attempt to keep the whole world off balance. But what happens when President Trump can truly throw the whole world off balance?