Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Can--or should--a President be both a Leader and Policymaker?
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Leaders experience government as chaos. The process of becoming president is the experience of random and shifting pressures from an almost infinite number of directions. Leaders, to be effective, cannot have fixed and comprehensive positions on the endless issues with which they must cope. No U.S. president has the ability to comprehend the vast array of policy issues that face him, nor can he grasp the depths of any single issue. Some presidents have tried. They generally did not do well.
Presidents who succeed have certain characteristics. They can lead. They provide the public with a sense that they understand what is needed and how to get it done, and that they care deeply about those who are hoping problems will be solved. They rarely take office with that ability, but rather gain it in the course of balancing things that cannot be balanced. In many cases, their ability to lead is best seen after they leave office.
Washington’s primary industry is the production of policy papers. It is the center of a democratic republic, and its decision makers must be far more concerned with the voters who elect the president than the bright meritocracy who wants to advise him. The ideas might be technically good, but whether they will survive the chaos of democracy is the issue. Whether a president who focuses on policy will flourish is another issue. The best policy from a technocratic point of view may have no connection to political realities that bind American society together. Policies are crafted on the fly, in the midst of the push and pull of special interests, since all Americans pursue special interests, namely their own.
What Trump has not done is immerse himself in the details of policy, for which he is condemned. But he is actually publicly saying what all presidents know. The foundation of the job is to lead and enunciate broad policy outlines. He then must select people he trusts and who know better than he does how to execute this broad intent without tearing the presidency apart.
Reagan was charged with being detached. Jimmy Carter was praised for his deep involvement in the details of governing. Carter was defeated after his first term. Reagan won two terms and has become an iconic figure. Some defend Reagan by claiming that he was far more involved in policymaking than it appeared. That may be true, but Reagan knew something Carter didn’t. Making policy is not a president’s central task, except in crisis. Presidents should be leaders who create a seductive image of what the country should be like and allow the love and hate of a country to focus on them – by allowing themselves to become a battleground that drives the country forward. Carter created an energy policy. He could not lead, seduce or accept his role as an icon. He missed the point of the presidency
Trump’s general outline on foreign policy is simple. He argues that the international structures and ideologies that have been in place since World War II no longer serve the national interest. Free trade is not an absolute good and its benefits depend on the circumstances. The U.S. commitment to allies must be examined based both on U.S. interests and whether or not allies have acted like allies. All of this must be measured against U.S. strategic and economic interests.
This is the broad vision that comes from “Making America Great Again.” What follows is not a set of clear policy initiatives to implement this, but rather political chaos. Trump has posed a sea change to American foreign policy, and he will need to build coalitions in Congress, corporations, labor and so on. He will need to deal with foreign powers and encounter the reality that we need some of them more than they need us. Trump will have to deal with a country that feels he has failed on his promises, as no president can fulfill promises this vast.
The policies that eventually emerge will not be the product of presidential engineering, but rather what is left after factions in the U.S. and foreign powers have ripped it apart and rebuilt it. Visions come from presidents. Papers come from think tanks. Reality emerges from the political process. The U.S. founders did not envision a technocracy.
Just as Kennedy could not fulfill the promise to protect liberty everywhere, nor could he avoid problems he wanted to avoid, Trump will have to face not only the limits of his own power as president, but also that which must happen and that which must not happen, despite what he wants...