Donald Trump wants to be a great president but his peevishness could undermine his pursuit.
If his Inauguration Day is any indication, President Trump realizes the necessity of reform in Washington D.C. He chose to frame his presidency as a great fight to pit the interests of the people against the whims of the establishment and you don’t appoint people like Mike Pompeo, James Mattis, and John Kelly if you trust the status quo to deliver.
That was the first day of the Trump presidency. The next day, White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, used his first briefing in the James S. Brady briefing room to complain about coverage of the inauguration and a misfired tweet alleging President Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. For his part, Trump traveled to Langley, Virginia to address members of the U.S. intelligence community. He just recently questioned the loyalty of intelligence leaders and this could have been an effort to rebuild the relationship between the president and the intelligence community. He didn’t show any deference, though, riffing and improvising as if he was back on the campaign trail. It’s early in the Trump presidency so perhaps he’s still adjusting to the new job. Nonetheless, addressing the CIA was Trump’s opportunity to outline a vision for American intelligence in the grand vision of restoring American strength and security. Perhaps he will leave that to the Cabinet secretaries, which begs the question: what role will the president play?
The Founders envisioned the presidency with a limited role in shaping domestic policy. The president is to employ the power of the bully pulpit, his control of a vast administrative state, and the threat of a presidential veto. These are such tremendous powers, it’s a wonder why past presidents were so eager to accept greater burdens. Nevertheless, the mystique and might of the executive have only grown since George Washington left office.
Media outlets are obsessed with the “normalizing” of Trump as president. They’re reticent to grant him or his actions any legitimacy and withholding all benefits of the doubt. They’re hostile to Trump, but the president doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt anyway, and neither did Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton before him. The right approach is not to avoid normalizing Donald Trump, but to normalize coverage of the presidency. Entertainment organizations, such as late night talk shows and gossip magazines, should deny President Trump appearances but only for the right reason: the president ought to focus on more important matters and so should the news media.
The presidency has become the center of all political coverage. With Trump, it will be especially difficult to separate the grave from the trivial. His tweets are now the proclamations of the most powerful person in the world. Hopefully, the press will reduce their coverage to the important matters of signing legislation and shaping policy. Donald Trump is going to be signing documents and making decisions that shape millions of lives. That is newsworthy enough. To conservatives, that makes his office the important final step in making appropriate policy but the media, and Trump himself, are likely to focus elsewhere. That begs another question: is it Trump’s vanity compelling him to make wild accusations that attract the media’s focus or is it a deliberate strategy to drive a wedge between the self-absorbed media and the populace? Perhaps, for Donald Trump, it’s a little of both, making use of a reflex.
If the Republicans can connect their conservative solutions to Trump’s populist politics, they could become America’s reform party and accost the cronyism rooted in Washington bureaucracy. With reforms both large and small, they can deliver real change for working-class Americans fighting for independence. It’s hard to imagine President Trump would want to distract attention from that. The Trump presidency can’t survive an internecine power struggle between populists in the west wing and the conservatives he’s nominated to head the executive agencies. They’re on the same page on policy, they ought to be there politically.
While Trump shatters some of the mystique of the White House, the office still demands respect. That should start with Trump himself using every opportunity to connect his broad, populist politics to solutions for every American. If he doesn’t, if he spends the days dominating the news cycle with inane comments, he will have wasted his time and ours.
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