Presidents Should Look Out for No. 1

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I have to defend presidential selfishness. But not the kind displayed by Donald Trump.

This comes up because Trump has decided to declassify several items associated with conspiracy theories about people in the FBI he believes are out to get him. It’s not clear how (or even if) the material will be made public, but law enforcement and national security experts are flagging the move as a clear abuse of power: Trump is attacking legitimate agency actions and even potentially risking real damage to U.S. interests to undermine the active investigations into his and his associates’ actions. See a good explanation from Greg Sargent at Plum Line.

What caught my eye though is this assertion that the problem is Trump acting in his self-interest:

Presidents Should Look Out for No. 1
David Kris@DavidKris
This is perhaps the signal feature of many of his worst actions -- he seems assiduously to view and engage with eve… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

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But there are different kinds of self-interest. What’s unusual about Trump’s version is that he’s constantly seeing the world through his own private self-interest, which is often just about putting money in his own pocket. That’s a real contrast to the kind of self-interest that most politicians display, which is about gaining power, influence and reputation for themselves as public actors.

Political ambition is a very good quality for presidents to have. Richard Neustadt’s 1960 classic, “Presidential Power,” leads to the belief that presidents should look out for their self-interest, properly understood. Neustadt thought presidents who tried to increase their own influence within the political system created all sorts of good outcomes. Power-hungry presidents would seek out as much information as possible and use it to create bargaining advantages -- and that would produce good public policy because what presidents learned as they gathered information were clues to what the system could accept, and that turns out to be a good match for sound governing in a democracy. 

Normal presidents have boundless political ambition -- and to fulfill their ambitions, they’ve learned what it takes to build winning coalitions. After all, that’s theoretically what it takes to get nominated and elected. The best presidents work hard to find goals that are achievable. They’ll sign on to fight for policy options that have plenty of built-in support and little built-in opposition. They’ll further cut deals to neutralize the opposition not (in many cases at least) by steamrolling over them, but by buying them off through compromise. In doing so, they’ll wind up addressing some of the nation’s biggest problems (because big problems create group demands for action) without overly burdening those who have to bear the costs of those solutions. They have the right political skill sets for those kinds of actions. Moreover, their ambition for political power gives them all the incentive they need to find the kind of winnable fights that simultaneously address national problems and grow their influence. 

So why shouldn’t Trump “engage with everything through the straw-sized aperture of his own self-interest”? Shouldn’t that make him a very good president?

No. 

In part that’s because Trump skipped the part about building winning coalitions. His factional, media-based candidacy allowed him to continue to act like a small-scale con artist. So as long as he can get away with something in the moment, he’s happy. But presidents are in long-term bargaining relationships with everyone in system -- members of Congress, executive branch officials and bureaucrats, state governments, parties, interest groups, foreign leaders and even the media. They are all watching him, and if he breaks a commitment to one, or tramples over norms to attack another, then they all notice and adjust accordingly.  As Neustadt would put it, his professional reputation suffers, which damages his future bargaining leverage. 

Trump is also incredibly lazy about fighting for his self-interest. By all accounts, he doesn’t read briefing books, and instead relies on  cable television for much of his information. He doesn’t seem to have learned some of the basic rules of the game, and again from everything we know he’s easily rolled by everyone -- even his own staff -- because he doesn’t work very hard at his job.

So Trump never has acquired the skills that, for a normal president, help ambition produce good policy.

Above all, however, is the distinction between private and public self-interest. Healthy self-interest in political leaders, including presidents, is public self-interest. It’s about their careers, yes, but it’s about success within public life. The best presidents, from George Washington on, were obsessed with making their mark in public. They were ambitious for a kind of greatness, and they were willing to give up a lot in their private lives in order to reach it. We can even see that at lower levels, where members of Congress will fight hard to keep their seats even though they could retire from politics for a much more lucrative career as lobbyists.Franklin Roosevelt was Neustadt’s ideal: A leader who was  highly ambitious and power-hungry, but whose ambitions almost entirely concerned public life.

The problem with Trump is that he doesn’t seem interested in public life. His self-interest is relentlessly about his own private self. That fits, for example, his refusal to divest his properties, even though they constantly create conflicts of interest and make him look small and petty to many of the people he has to work with. It fits his inability to think about international relations as anything broader than his personal relationship with foreign leaders. It also fits his apparent emotional neediness, expressed for example in his need for people to profess loyalty to him and to compliment him constantly.

Yes, Trump does seem to care about what people think of him, but it’s mostly in a private, personal sense. The Trump who was obsessed with tabloid coverage of his personal affairs in the the 1980s and 1990s is the same Trump who still seems to regard everything as either a personal compliment or a personal affront. What’s missing is a public Trump. Oddly enough, despite running for and becoming president, he still doesn’t seem to have what we would really think of as political ambition. Just private fixations.

So, yes, I’ll defend presidential self-interest. I just want presidents who are out to further their public self-interest -- and are a lot better at it than Trump. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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