People frequently and foolishly assume that the president of the United States holds enough power to get pretty much anything they want done. Presidents, presidential aspirants, and certainly a current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leaseholder I could name, frequently and foolishly encourage such bosh. Presidential power in fact is a surprisingly limited–and limiting–thing.
No one knew this better than Harry S. Truman, who famously grumbled that, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Truman predicted that his successor Dwight Eisenhower was going to have a rough adjustment period. Top ranking generals in the Army can act like real authoritarians. Presidents, not so much. “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ Truman snarkily predicted. “And nothing will get done.”
Truman’s words struck a particular chord with Richard Neustadt, who at the time (early 1950s) was a freshly minted Harvard PhD hanging around Truman’s White House as a special assistant. Neustadt was a political scientist who was unlike most of his academic tribe in that he spent a considerable amount of time interacting with actual politicians.1 Neustadt went on to become famous among my polyester-loving people (political scientists are called Das Sansabelt Volk in German) for writing the definitive book on presidential power. With the typical wit and wordplay that political scientists are known for, Neustadt titled his magnum opus, wait for it, Presidential Power.2
Joking aside, Neustadt’s book really is the definitive study of the subject and its conclusions about the actual power of the presidency shade astonishingly close to Truman’s cavils about the constraints of the office. When you get right down to it, the president’s formal powers are (at least in theory) pretty limited. He really hasn’t got the political juice to just make government do what he wants it to. He can’t make law and he can’t raise money. He has to get Congress to do that. He can veto things. But that just means admitting Congress wouldn’t do what he wanted. He can sign Executive Orders, which makes for a cool photo op, but is weak tea compared to actual legislation.
Neustadt argued that the real power of the presidency rested not on the formal tools of the office, but on three intangibles associated with whatever individual happened to occupy it: public esteem, professional reputation, and, above all, the ability to persuade. In short, the true source of a president’s influence is his (or her) deal-making skills. Powerful presidents are those that successfully nudge, nag or sway Congress into doing what they want them to do. To do that it helps to be popular with the public, it helps to have professional respect, but bottom line is you gotta be able to cut a deal.
Donald John Trump clearly lacks two of the three. His approval rating is lower than squid pee and rapidly diffusing into the salty currents of public opinion. His professional esteem basically rests on reality show star power—he rates, like, seven Lindsay Lohans on the TMZ Index of Sideshow Celebrity. His cred as some sort of business whiz, on the other hand, is pretty much PR and pixie dust. Between Trump University, Trump Steaks, Playboy videos, wrestling appearances, and the epilogue of his business books invariably concluding in Chapter 11, the president’s record as some sort of business titan covers more blemishes than Clearasil. Making a deal, though, that’s something he is supposed to be good at.
Except maybe he isn’t. Thus far, git-‘er-done deal making has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Deals have either never been made (health care), never got off the ground (making Mexico pay for that wall), or seem to exist completely in the never-never (NAFTA renegotiations). The central strategy of Trump’s deal making approach seems to involve royally pissing off all the important players he needs at the bargaining table, and heaping scorn on those who won’t do what he wants. And, well, maybe that works in the reality-TV-porno-business world. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is less the art of the deal than the art of the meal. It’s all about making sure you can get half a loaf. Trump seems to think the goal is to swipe the entire thing and gorge on it in front of the starving eyes of your vanquished foe.
Trump’s approach to deal making was in full head-scratching mode this week as he actually did cut a deal. With Democrats. The losers who left the bargaining table rattleboned and deprived of their much needed share of whole grain political carbohydrates were Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump blindsided them—and even members of his own cabinet—by agreeing to a Democratic plan to attach hurricane relief spending to a short-term (three month) increase in the debt ceiling. To put it mildly, that’s not what the GOP wanted. Ryan looked understandably constipated coming out of the meeting. He was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic he clearly was suffering from irritable vowel syndrome. McConnell looked even worse. He was so thin-lipped his incisors had practically disappeared up his nostrils, the tips just peeking out like some sort of angry vampire boogers.
In the short term this gives Trump, with some degree of credibility, the right to claim he cut a deal by shoving aside the status quo way of doing things. In other words, just the sort of shake-it-up, non-politician hoi polloi hogwash he was elected on. In the long-term it almost certainly reduces his ability, perhaps catastrophically, to make future deals with Congress. Even with his own party. Why would Ryan and McConnell trust Trump, let alone stick their necks out to carry his water when he’s just shown he’s perfectly willing to hold their heads under it? Sure, it’s plenty amusing to watch Democrats and committed anti-Trumpers like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi give props to the president—their words of praise mumbled like they were still dealing with the after-effects of a particularly nasty dental procedure. But as Trump has spent eight months heaping infamy and opprobrium on both their heads, they represent the minority party in congress, and, oh yeah, their voter base is seething with virulent anti-Donny sentiment, it’s hard to see this as a long-term deal making partnership.
The bottom line is that less than a year into his term, Trump has managed to seriously corrode his working relationship with just about everyone on Capitol Hill. It’s truly an awe-invoking accomplishment. And it’s seriously going to crimp his ability to cut deals. If that last remaining leg of the power source gives, Trump may prove to be a very weak president indeed. That’s what Truman and Neustadt would surely predict. This week’s gobsmacking smoochie with the Dems may simply be Trump hankering for a win at any price to prop up his fading art-of-the deal cred. If Congress decides to go its own way, though, Trump, like Truman, will find that it can make a president scream. So, no one should be surprised if Congress is about to give the president a lesson in the art of the squeal.
- I’m not joking. One of the things that most surprised me about becoming a professional student of politics is the relatively low levels of interaction between this set of academics and government officials. As a political reporter I’d spent years of my working life in the company of pols. I’ve met scads of political scientists who–I kid you not–have spent less time interacting with the humans who actually practice politics than I did in any randomly chosen week, and certainly any month, of my career as a journalist. It’s a weird world I inhabit.
- In later editions he jazzed it up a bit, using the snappier title Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. You can buy a copy here. Ignore my snotty editorializing about beige language—his main thesis holds up six decades on and is well worth the read.