Conviction, Skill and Policy Pitfalls

(Bloomberg View) -- Here comes the trade war. Well, maybe.

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he was going to impose hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum (see Chad Bown's analysis at the Monkey Cage). It might happen. Then again, it might not. On Wednesday, Trump announced a position on gun safety that went against the NRA, going so far as to taunt Republicans in Congress for fearing the organization, but after an Oval Office meeting with the NRA on Thursday night, it's very likely that Trump completely caved. 

Trade might be different; for one thing, it's a policy area for which Trump probably really does have firm convictions. But as Matt Glassman says in a must-read item on Trump's limited influence even within his own administration, "Weak presidents routinely get rolled by the priorities and goals of competing actors." And with Trump, that includes those within the White House. In fact, Trump's apparently premature tariff announcement might be, to the extent it was thought out at all, an end run around White House and executive branch personnel who strongly oppose protectionism. Unfortunately for Trump, presidents who try to get things done by giving orders often find those orders ignored or overturned. Even worse, the very attempt of governing by fiat produces enemies. 

So perhaps the steel and aluminum tariffs will go the way of other Trump orders that vanished. But this episode may also demonstrate the dangers of presidents who do what they think is right. Most presidential actions are constrained by their party coalition, the opinions of neutral experts, bureaucratic pressures, congressional allies and more. Barack Obama presumably genuinely agreed with some combination of liberal Democratic priorities and expert opinion in most policy areas. The secret truth of the whole "birther" conspiracy and other nutty theories about Obama's supposedly radical sympathies is that it didn't really matter what Obama thought; by the time he reached the White House, he was essentially a generic Democrat in terms of his approach to policy, not noticeably different than Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might have been. They would each have had some differences, and their abilities at presidenting would have varied with perhaps important implications for success or failure, but that's about all when it came to policy.

Trump, on the other hand, is only very loosely constrained by the deep party ties an Obama or a Clinton had. Rather than freeing him, however, it just leaves him out on a ledge with very limited support when he goes off on his own. Presidents just can't be effective that way, because they don't have any particular insight into policy. They're not specialists. What they are convinced is the right thing to do might be horribly wrong.

What great presidents do have is political skill. Good presidents are experts at figuring out what will work by listening to all the clues operating within the political system: who supports and opposes policy proposals, how and why they take those positions, how intensely they do so, and so on. All that information, all the nuances and signals properly read, are terrific hints as to how any new initiative will actually play out. 

All this appears to be entirely lost on Trump. The result is bad news for him, but even worse news for the nation. 

1. Jens Olav Dahlgaard at the Monkey Cage finds that lowering the voting age has the side effect of making parents more likely to vote.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Bidisha Biswas and Ramya M. Vijaya on Trump's policies and immigration from India.

3. Dan Drezner suggests it's not a bad time to begin a government career in foreign policy

4. Dave Hopkins on Trump's approval ratings and why they're important.

5. Very good Ed Kilgore item on the likely effects of the top-two primary system in California on U.S. House contests. Exactly correct: Top two is a terrible system, but it's just as likely to harm Republicans this time around as it is to harm Democrats. 

6. Jonathan Chait on demographics and the electorate.

7. ProPublica's Justin Elliott on what contractors think about Trump, or at least what the leaders of their trade group think. 

8. More "Black Panther": political theorist Melvin L. Rogers on Killmonger

9. And with the Oscars coming Sunday, political scientist Lilly Goren in Fortune asks why they still have separate acting awards for men and women.

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. 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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