By John Cassidy
The Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt famously remarked that the Oval Office “is no place for amateurs.” This is because, as Neustadt pointed out in his book “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents,” which was originally published in 1960, the Presidency is, structurally, a weak office. Its occupant has to deal with Congress and the courts as coequal branches of government. Even inside the sprawling executive branch, it isn’t easy to direct Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, and career public officials, many of whom have their own expertise and agendas. Given this challenging environment, Neustadt concluded, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” If a President loses the ability to bring other players along with him, he is lost.
More than a year ago, in a piece published at Vox, Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, argued that Donald Trump was “a weak president” in the Neustadt sense of the term. Glassman pointed to Trump’s low approval ratings, early setbacks that the Administration had suffered, such as court rulings against his travel ban, and the failure to repeal Obamacare. The White House’s victories, such as the passage of a tax-reform bill, “usually involve Trump having adopted the position of the congressional Republicans, not the other way around,” Glassman noted.
Back then, the argument could be made that the Trump Administration, for all its early pratfalls, had time to recover. With substantial tax cuts and spending increases about to go into effect—a Keynesian stimulus in all but name—the economy was likely to perk up, giving the White House the opportunity to build support in other areas. And, as the latest jobs report demonstrated, the economy did pick up. But Trump’s Presidency, rather than expanding in scope and power in the course of the past year, has continued to shrink and shrivel. As he prepares to deliver his second State of the Union address, Trump looks increasingly like a lame duck.
It isn’t merely that, with the election of a new Congress, his ability to get new legislation passed has run into a Democratic veto—although, as the failure to get funding for a border wall demonstrated, this is obviously a key development. Within the executive branch, many areas of policy appear to proceed despite Trump’s presence rather than because of it. A recent exhibit: the intelligence community’s issuance of an international-threats assessment that contradicted many of Trump’s claims on key issues, such as the nuclear policies of Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, damaging leaks emerge daily, demonstrating that the President is neither feared nor respected by those around him—the latest example being the leaking of his confidential daily schedules to Axios. Over the past three months, according to the internal documents, unstructured “executive time” constituted more than sixty per cent of his day in the Oval Office, suggesting that the President spends more time watching TV and tweeting than he does attending to the affairs of the most powerful nation on Earth.
The basic problem, Glassman told me, is that Trump, despite the talents he displayed in whipping up his supporters during the 2016 campaign, lacks the skill set to be a successful President. “He’s an amateur in the White House,” Glassman said. “He doesn’t have a lot of experience in governing, and I don’t see a lot of learning going on. He looks hideously weak.”