President Trump, Master of None

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is a fun one from presidency scholar Matthew Dickinson

That’s pretty good for intro students! 

As the hashtag suggests, Dickinson has been teaching Richard Neustadt’s ideas about presidential power — just as I have been here. It remains, however, a difficult concept, so it’s useful to return to it from time to time.

It’s easy to think the president is very powerful. After all, even a very weak president is still going to have more influence overall than anyone else in Washington. And so many policy decisions seem to be going Donald Trump’s way. 

But it’s important to distinguish between things that happen because Trump wanted them to and things that happen regardless of what he wanted. There’s nothing new about that distinction; Neustadt was making it about Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman almost 70 years ago. The very first assumption to drop whenever thinking about presidential power is that everything that happens in the executive branch’s departments and agencies is a consequence of presidential influence. I’ve found that most people intuitively believe that Congress can resist the president, and that foreign nations can, too. But isn’t the president the chief executive?

Well, yes and no. We can’t say it too many times: The executive branch has many masters. Yes, the president can influence executive-branch departments and agencies. But so can Congress. So can the courts, and sometimes the states. So can the departments’ own bureaucracies.

Does that mean there’s some sort of impenetrable “deep state” dedicated to resisting the will of the president? Not at all. There is a permanent civil service, and they do tend to resist change. Not usually because of loyalty to one political party, but because people who stay in the same job for decades while they are supervised by temps (in the White House and the Capitol) tend to be very confident of their own opinions. Defeating that status quo bias is a major task for every president, and it usually requires plenty of skill and entails a fair amount of risk. Only a president unfamiliar with the U.S. constitutional system would just assume he would have simple control over the government. 

Nevertheless, it’s easy to mistakenly believe that everything that happens within the executive branch is the president’s handiwork, especially with a president who tries to govern by decree instead of by bargaining. It’s even easy to credit the president for actions by his party in Congress. But members of Congress are independent actors who may or may not be choosing a course of action at the urging of the Oval Office, and while it’s not exactly identical, the same basically applies to the actions of executive-branch departments and agencies. And it takes considerable political skill, not just bluster, for any president to actually influence other officials within the system — skill that we’re not seeing from this particular president.

1. Terrific must-read item from Julia Azari on norms, values and democracy.

2. Matthew Glassman on legislative-branch appropriations.

3. Marcus Holmes and Keren Yarhi-Milo at the Monkey Cage on the canceled North Korea summit and why face-to-face diplomacy can be important.

4. Sean Trende on House elections.

5. Fred Kaplan on the canceled summit and Trump as a negotiator

6. Heather Hurlburt on the canceled summit and reality-television diplomacy.

7. And Glenn Kessler has a useful fact check about how often and how Trump talks to the press

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