Like a child opening Christmas presents, except for 100 straight days, President Trump is discovering the wondrous instruments of presidential power.
Accessing the nation’s military arsenal and the fruits of US intelligence gathering, issuing executive orders, leading party majorities in both houses of Congress, and commanding attention on the world stage – these are pretty cool toys for any leader, let alone one who was elected to his first political office.
To various degrees and with mixed results, Trump is learning how to use these tools. However, just as knowing how to use a hammer or a saw does not make you a master carpenter, Trump is still an apprentice when it comes to political leadership.
To be sure, it is difficult for any new president to learn the job, particularly one who condemned his own party establishment on his way to the White House.
Trump found few political allies upon arriving in Washington, and has been slow to locate people to run his government.
Within the West Wing, it seems that he trusts only his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who has been tasked to stop the opioid epidemic, make government run like a business, and bring peace to the Middle East.
Though nearly all of the president’s Cabinet choices were confirmed, there are few appointees at the sub-Cabinet level. Some of this may be by design. For example, the depopulation of the State Department appears to reflect Trump’s disdain for soft power in projecting American strength.
Rather, it is fair to say that President Trump is enamored of hard power for both strategic and political reasons. The bombing of Syria sent a message about the use of chemical weapons to both President Assad and, intriguingly, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Assad’s chief ally and Trump’s alleged patron. Even more impressed were Beltway pundits, who hailed Trump’s use of military strength as a sign of maturity in office.
Trump is also predisposed to use unilateral power in domestic affairs. So far he has issued 25 executive orders, 24 memoranda, and 20 proclamations, according to The Guardian. Some directives attempted to stake out new powers, such as the controversial travel ban, while others are aimed at undoing executive actions of President Obama.
Whether by executive order or use of administrative powers, Trump signaled a clear change of direction on immigration enforcement, efforts to combat climate change, and criminal justice.
On the other hand, Trump discovered in the case of the travel ban that some presidential edicts can provoke a popular uprising and intervention by the courts.
Speaking of checks and balances, the president has already experienced the joys and agonies of working with Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demonstrated what powerful friends on Capitol Hill can do for a president when Senate Republicans steamrolled the confirmation of Judge Neal Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court.
Conversely, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan failed, for now at least, to craft a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that was acceptable to both the Freedom Caucus and Republican moderates. Maybe only the man who said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” was surprised.
When it comes to setting the national agenda, few presidents rival Trump for knowing how to get public attention. The problem is that much of the president’s messaging is unplanned and contradictory. Just in the last two weeks, Trump reversed his previous positions that the US should not intervene militarily in Syria, NATO was obsolete, and China was a currency manipulator.
Sometimes the president’s unpredictability works to his advantage. Trump showed he was a master of distraction by accusing Obama of wiretapping his campaign at the same time damaging stories about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign were released.
Then again, Trump’s penchant for surprise and prevarication puts spokespeople such as Sean Spicer in the impossible position of trying to justify or make sense of his statements. More seriously, the incoherence of presidential policy could bring about dangerous miscalculations by leaders hostile to American interests.
When Trump adheres to a simple, consistent message, he can produce results. In appointing now-Justice Gorsuch, Trump helped himself by sticking to his promise on the campaign trail that he would choose a highly-qualified, reasonable facsimile of Justice Scalia.
Furthermore, the president is assembling an experienced team in national security, a sign perhaps that he recognizes that his lack of policy expertise is a liability. Similarly, Trump has recruited advisors from the New York financial world to develop his economic program, though supporters wonder if he is abandoning the populist themes that appealed to his working-class base.
It remains to be seen whether Trump can be more than someone learning to play an instrument. Does the president possess the qualities of a maestro – the discipline and skill to harmonize disparate instruments toward an artistic vision – that can advance his leadership project?
Or is he tone-deaf?