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Why Trump’s presidency will be weaker than many have hoped or feared

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Trump inherits a far weaker office than it was a generation ago.

One of the ironies of American politics is that while the U.S. presidency is arguably the most powerful elected position in the world, the office is also surprisingly weak. As Donald Trump prepares to take office he may be surprised that for all that he says he wants to do, he may have less power to accomplish them than he and his supporters hoped, or his detractors feared. The truth is that there are many constraints on U.S. presidential power, dictated by the Constitution and the reality of American politics, international relations, and the precedents set by his predecessors.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Richard Neustadt’s 1960 “Presidential Power” arguably endures as the single best book every written on the American presidency. It opens with a quote from Harry Truman in 1952, offering advice to the incoming president and former general Dwight Eisenhower:

He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.

Neustadt’s use of the Truman quote was to underscore a reality of the American president who cannot simply order people about like kings or business CEOs. Instead the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.

Power of persuasion

Article II of the U.S. Constitution defines the formal constitutional powers of the president that have not changed since George Washington. But as Neustadt and James David Barber in his “President Character” contend, it the personality or character of the person who is president, along with a host of other factors, that define the ability of presidents to persuade Congress, the media, foreign countries, and the American people to follow them. These factors include rhetorical and media skills, margins of political victory, knowledge and experience of government, public support, the strength of political opposition, and perhaps the overall likeability of the persons. Presidential power is to the power to persuade, but that persuasive power is a form of bargaining power. Some presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were powerful because of these factors.

From the New Deal until perhaps recently there was a fear of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. termed the “imperial presidency.” Born of the New Deal regulatory state and the reality of the Cold War and Vietnam, presidents were viewed as dangerously powerful and prone to abuse their authority, as did Richard Nixon. But we are a long way from days of the imperial presidency — and as Stephen Skowronek points out in “Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal,” context too demarcates the limits of presidential power. Today, as a result of Supreme Court decisions — many of which clipped Obama’s power when it came to executive orders and Bill Clinton when it came to issues about legal accountability for personal behavior — Trump inherits a far weaker office than it was a generation ago.

A system resistant to sudden, dramatic change

Soon if not already Trump is about to confront this reality. He and his supporters and his detractors seem to have forgotten that there is this thing called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which define the power of the presidency. Both contain concepts such as separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and the basic rights and liberties which presidents cannot violate. There are some things President Trump cannot do alone with executive orders or even with legislation. He cannot order states and cities around; he cannot order citizens to do things that are illegal. And even though Congress is of the same party as he is and he will get to appoint federal judges and a new Supreme Court justice, the logic of the political system that the American constitutional framers designed is one that is resistant to sudden and dramatic change. Congress and the Supreme Court will have their own institutional identities and interests that will make them resistant to being ordered around by Trump.

Moreover, while the attraction of many to Trump was him being an outsider, his being unskilled in Washington politics will make it hard to govern. President Jimmy Carter was an outsider whose presidency was compromised by his lack of Washington skills even though he was a governor. Trump does not even have that, and many of his senior appointees lack that too. They will soon find themselves out maneuvered by the federal bureaucracy, the senior executive service, and all the others who really run the government and know how to make it work.

So long as Trump continues to fight the reality of American politics he will get nowhere. Conversely, as the confirmation hearings are starting to show, in areas such as foreign affairs and intelligence gathering there is a powerful establishment and bureaucracy that will crush Trump if he does not learn how to work with them. Presidents really have little freedom to change the course of American foreign affairs, with the best predictor of what a new president will do is to look at the previous one. Besides the constraints of domestic politics, international contexts such as real politics and the support or opposition of allies and enemies dictate narrow courses of action for any president.

Here comes reality

All of the above suggests that Trump is about confront reality. He will have to operate in a context that would limit any president. But now also consider that he is a minority president who did not win the popular vote and had one of the narrowest Electoral College victories in history. He was never popular as a candidate with nearly 60 percent disapproving of him, and recent polls suggest an approval rating of 37 percent. Presidents normally are sworn in with lots of good will; Trump will not have that. He enters a weakened office as a weakened president, lacking the traits that Neustadt, Barber, and Skowronek describe as key to presidential success. It is not an imperial presidency located in Trump Tower that Trump inherits, but a weak office that can do far less to produce jobs, force Mexico to build a wall and pay for it, and abrogate unilaterally trade agreements without facing political and legal problems.

He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Donald — it won’t be a bit like “The Apprentice.” He’ll find it very frustrating.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/20/2017 - 08:56 am.

    Speaking

    …as the antithesis of a Trump supporter, I certainly hope Professor Schultz is correct.

    On the other hand, Trump has already provided ample evidence that he’s often able to operate outside established political norms, and I’m not sure Professor Schultz – or anyone else – is in a position to guarantee that Trump will “do no harm.” If Congressional Republicans are compliant, or are willing to trade quid pro quos with the new president, we could just as easily be looking at the beginning of an Imperial Presidency, since Trump has already demonstrated many of the behaviors of an autocrat, and the GOP has, in recent years, provided ample evidence that the right wing is not interested in governing, but prefers to rule and/or dictate. The governing tendencies of Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are sympathetic enough to make for understandable anxiety in a sizable portion of the population, Professor Schultz’ arguments notwithstanding.

  2. Submitted by Robert Lilly on 01/20/2017 - 09:37 am.

    Constitution

    What scenario might lead to Marshall law in this country, what happens to our constitutional protections? Natural disasters, terrorism or a President Trump (God I hate seeing that) inciting China or NK to attack us. What happens then?

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/20/2017 - 09:39 am.

    Taking things for granted

    I am always very reluctant to come close to violating Godwin’s Law which refers to use of Hitler analogies, and I don’t mean to equate Trump to Hitler. But I also think that our reluctance to make Hitler analogies can mean that we don’t draw the historical lessons from the Hitler era that we should. For me, this is particularly an issue when we say things like, “don’t worry, the constitution will protect us.” Well we don’t know that. For one thing our country has been in decline for quite some time. Our system is no longer capable of replacing Supreme Court justices. For the second time this century, we have elected presidents who lost the popular vote. This time around, the election wasn’t all that close.

    We just can’t take things for granted. In terms of reality, Trump with his cabinet and it’s assortment of Alpha male CEO’s, we are governed by people who made millions of dollars for themselves by ignoring reality, or at the very least bending it to their will. This is what happened in Germany, and I don’t know if the case is really very strong for the argument that it can’t happen here.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/20/2017 - 01:02 pm.

      Hitler analogies

      I strongly encourage that everyone read Erik Larson’s : “In the Garden of Beasts” and study Germany in the 20s and 30s not just Hitler. We have a tendency for a variety of reason to organize history around personalities as if individuals make history rather than function within history. Hitler rose to power in one of the few countries that a guy like Hitler could possibly have risen to power, he would have been a anonymous guy with a sheet over his head standing around a burning cross in the dark in this country. He would have been a garden variety psychopath in England or France.

      It’s critically important to realize that Germany was a nation with very specific and critical characteristics that promoted Hitler’s rise to power. While it’s true that most of us have grown up with the:”It could happen here” narrative and warning, the truth is it could not have happened here for a variety of reasons. Not that we shouldn’t be vigilant, but nor should we be irrational.

      Trump is no Hitler for a variety of reasons. Hitler never had to contend with a US Congress or a US Constitution, or a population even remotely as large, diverse, and unruly has are the American people.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/22/2017 - 12:20 pm.

        Yah-but:

        He and his gang sure do have a lot of fascist tendencies, seem to be going right down the list and ticking them off, and from this perspective has a lot of resemblance to the fuhrer! Wasn’t that long ago we ripped our Japanese Americans out of their homes, stole their property and imprisoned them, shortly followed by the McCarthy anti-communist era, there is nothing from this perspective to say this type of behavior will not happen again. Especially with a CIC, senate, and congress that are intent on, their Agenda, not an American Agenda. Lets be honest going back to the late 1800’s where industry and big business, robber barons etc. ruled, and the average citizen was at their mercy is the republican agenda.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/20/2017 - 09:41 am.

    I Can Only Hope that Professor Schultz is Correct

    Added to that is the reality that the Republican leadership in congress,…

    appears to have ample evidence in hand to impeach President Trump,…

    should he ever decide not to comply with their wishes.

    It may very well be that Mr. Trump will not be in a position to do anything,…

    but rubber stamp the most damaging and disastrous laws and policies of the Republican far right wing,…

    signing off on every way possible that they can devise to reward the wealthy for being wealthy,…

    (we think we’ve seen income inequality? “we ain’t seen NOTHING yet”)…

    and punish the poor and needy for being poor and needy,…

    (especially when the Republicans are the ones who have arranged for them to be poor and needy)…

    no matter how much LESS popular that makes him.

  5. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/20/2017 - 10:41 am.

    Following the crowd

    “Canetti’s “Crowds and Power”…I pull it out again, trying to understand the Trump following, but then I remember…

    I have wondered how Trump with his bully-on-the playground style managed to sucker the vote and now become our next president?

    Then I remember my Uncle Cliff who came on slow winter afternoons for a cup of java and entertaining my preschool brother and I with tales of wonder.

    Cliff could make us believe he had a kitten in his pocket, Uncle mewing with the best of them…a grand ventriloquist indeed who by the way, could blow smoke rings out both his ears at the same time…or so it seemed?

    But the best was his story of when he was young he would stand on a street corner at high noon be it Chicago, St Paul or was it greater Minnesota? He would stand on Main street USA and stare intently at the sky until a sufficiently large crowd gathered too…and then walk away leaving the crowd still standing, staring at nothing…

    May this be is what happened with the crowd vote of followers voting for the lies of Trump?

    A crowd of followers, following the crowd…something even Canetti never knew…Following the crowd of Donald?

    And now , it is President Donald Trump… applause, applause?

  6. Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/20/2017 - 11:30 am.

    The Constitution

    Is a very old piece of parchment. It cannot defend itself, or anyone else. All that prevents it being rendered entirely meaningless is the amount of people willing to live by its strictures. Should the number of those willing to throw it out in favor of a autocratic presidency exceed those who wish not to, we’ll have an autocrat. Should a small number of people with martial power chose to do so, we’ll have an autocrat. Should the wealthiest of our population choose to do so, we’ll have an autocrat.
    We have been lulled by decades of relative stability, we’ve forgotten how short the period of our success has been relative to the arc of history. We believe ourselves exceptional, immune to the ravages of greed for power we lament elsewhere. We’ll soon see, just how unexceptional we really are.

  7. Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/20/2017 - 12:00 pm.

    Thank you, David Schultz!

    You, Sir, have indeed brightened my dreary day! I’m on my lunch hour, listening to my other co-workers quietly cheer in the new President, while I sit alone in a minority, it seems. And your well-written article certainly did cheer me up while I eat my slices of apple and turkey sandwich.

    Yes, I believe that a good President has the power of persuasion, and reading the skills necessary in your paragraph titled just that, “Power of Persuasion”, I find that our new President is sadly lacking in most of them, if not ALL of them.

    Yet, I do pray for our country, and sincerely hope that this “bump” in the road, will pass, and somehow, we can all become united once again, both Democrats and Republicans and Independents and that our great country can still be one to inspire other nations, while taking care of all of the needs of our citizens lucky enough to live in the great United States of America. Cheers for the Red, White and Blue!!!

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/20/2017 - 12:32 pm.

    Wishful thinking

    You are talking about the effect of checks and balances on a normal human being who believes in reasonable discussion and democracy. The history of other places where dictators have arisen shows that these check don’t work with aspiring dictators.

    From day one Trump is taking money personally from foreign governments. This is banned by the US Constitution. What can be done about it? Well, GSA could take away his lease for his Washington hotel, but when they work for Trump, will they do so? The Republican Congress could impeach him, but show early signs of supportiing whatever actions, legal or not. One has to image a very extreme case to impeachment to be brought up. And a court packed with Trump appointees – one can hardly expect them to act.

    Of course, you can suggest that a dictatorship could never happen in the United States, but if that is your belief, then submit your evidence. Even social scientists aren’t allowed to operate off of blind faith that we are simply too wonderful to let this happen. Review our national history, and many forms of tyranny have existed, but they came out of a morally corrupt society, not a single fatally flawed individual.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/20/2017 - 12:34 pm.

    There are a whole lot of things that operate the way they should because there is a tradition of respecting the understanding of what is the right thing to do.

    It turns out tradition is surprisingly weak and the judgement of what is acceptable is pretty malleable.

    And, the Seneca effect says a decline is always faster than the rise. It’s easier to lower standards and expectations than to raise them.

    The most obvious example today is the disregard of conflict of interest laws by Trump and some of his appointees. And one only has to look to the recent past with idea of torture–the lawyers and legal apparatus of the President of the USA were all oriented and directed toward laying the legal groundwork to OK the use of torture.

    It is always an on-going battle, and yes there are typically restraints–but when the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court are aligned in common self-interest, does it make torture OK ?

  10. Submitted by David Markle on 01/20/2017 - 01:46 pm.

    And for other reasons

    Trump has said or implied he’d do a lot of things that don’t seem possible for practical reasons. For example, how can Trump–even with help of Congress–put the coal miners back to work if natural gas is cheaper and easier to use than coal?

  11. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/20/2017 - 04:08 pm.

    We would all like to believe that it’s not going to be as bad as we think it will be, under Trump. We all would like to believe that our Constitution protects us, that the Congress (now controlled by Trump’s current party) and the courts (the Senate refused to approve many hundreds of Obama judicial nominees, so the courts will soon be filled, from federal top to bottom, with Trump appointees from the right side of the ideological spectrum) will control or contain him. Nope.

    The United States of America has never elected a President like this man before. We are not in normal territory; he is not a normal President. So we should be fiercely on guard: We are in new and uncharted circumstances. The world knows it, even if Trump supporters would like us all Not To Worry and Be Happy.

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