On June 2, 2016, the Financial Times published a luncheon interview with former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury, James Baker. Baker provided some sage insight to inform the first 70 days of a new administration:
“I won’t get my panties in a wedge because of what I am hearing from the political candidates. What they say in the campaign and what they do once they are in the White House is not the same thing. I don’t care who wins, whoever gets to the White House. Presidents can do a lot, but they can only do so much through the system of checks and balances. We are a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy and the power structure in Washington. Presidents are not unilateral rulers. If they did not know that, they will find out soon enough.”
Consider the following:
- The President of the United States manages a system replete with checks and balances and leads an executive bureaucracy managed on a matrix organizational structure defined by conflicting incentives and factionalism.
- An incoming President arrives in the oval office with a list of campaign promises. He or she is confronted with a significant flow of existing governance responsibilities that essentially command all of their time and capacity. Consequently, new initiatives must be incorporated within the flow of existing responsibilities as defined by law, circumstances, and the federal credit and budget.
- A President’s capacity to lead is determined by the capacity that they build – with their Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees, their ability to align with the bureaucracy, the Congress, the contractors, and with the wider constituencies throughout the country. With an 80-percent consensus behind them on individual issues inside and outside the Beltway, a President can do remarkable things. Without such support, the President’s hands are tied on many issues.
Policies and budgets are much easier to describe during a campaign. You paint a picture of what is possible and what you want to do. However, when you implement policies and budgets you must do more than paint a picture. They require detailed architectural specifications that must be worked through a complex thicket of laws and regulations and ultimately win the approval of a diverse group of people, organizations, and constituencies. This takes time and negotiation. It is the sausage factory of the democratic legislative, regulatory, and budgetary process.
In assessing the first 70 days of the Trump administration, one must have a concept of a President’s actual powers, authorities, and capacities. These powers underscore the importance of recruiting an excellent Cabinet and working with it to become an effective team.
Overall Grade (as of 3/31): B-
Make America Great Again (MAGA) is a brilliant strategy. Now, let’s expand it to incorporate America’s role in a thriving global civilization and economy.
Recruiting a Team: A-
Trump has done a good job of recruiting an A-team at the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet-level from the Republican rolodex. These people are doers with significant business and military experience, rather than process people trained as lawyers. Many of the business people understand the benefits that will accrue to the business world if a successful middle class is preserved. Let’s hope his new team can help the President build out the sub-Cabinet positions effectively. Given their establishment credentials and wealth, the question is whether or not they will serve the best long-term interests of the American people or continue the uneconomic centralization of power and wealth.
Building a Team: Too Early To Grade
This is a make-or-break accomplishment, essential for building capacity. Can Trump lead this group to become a real team and work with confidence despite the bitter environment and “divide and conquer” competition in Washington? A big question is whether he can demonstrate the character needed to lead an organization far larger than a family enterprise.
Accomplishments to Date: B+
The Trump team has gotten a lot done quickly (see Q1 Chronology). The President and his team are hard workers and committed to performance. For the most part, they keep their eye on the ball despite the enormous flow coming their way.
The President took his campaign promises seriously. The speed at which he and his team have moved forward to keep promises sets a new record for Washington. As is evident from the press coverage, Washington is not used to entrepreneurial speeds.
Communication is one of the great strengths of Trump and his team. They have built out a direct communications infrastructure at the White House — which is a good beginning. Combined with blunt talk and the speed at which the Trump team is doing things, this communication can be upsetting to many constituencies. Some of this is good in bringing about needed change. Some is simply the President being “not-Presidential” in a manner that sometimes costs him precious political capital. Continuing to build out their direct communications is essential.
War Games (Mapping the Swamp): C
The Trump team is naïve about Washington’s swamp dirty tricks. Note the Russian witch hunting and the behind-the-scenes switch-hits on health care. Significantly increasing the Trump team IQ and capacity to deal effectively on this score will make an important contribution to their performance.
Building Bottom-Up Support: C+
The President is going to need to upgrade the campaign digital infrastructure to continue to build “outside-inside” communication and support, particularly for his legislative and budgetary efforts. He needs communication mechanisms that can engage his audience with more detailed and place-based policy information.
Introducing Important Change: A
There is no nice way to help the country turn on a dime. The President deserves credit for his attempts to introduce reality on domestic issues despite the opposition it has inspired. He needs to do the same on America’s role in the world.
Building Bridges Internationally: C+
Numerous campaign statements, the inaugural address and the President’s emphasis on putting America first have wreaked havoc and created great uncertainty in the global community. Although the President has made a concerted effort to reach out and communicate with world leaders, the global audience needs a clear vision of America’s intended role in the world.
Building Bridges Domestically: C
Despite the war games, much can be accomplished by reaching out across the aisle and into grassroots networks to the millions of leaders and citizens who will share the MAGA vision. Don’t let the divide-and-conquer tactics mislead you: the polls show that a resounding majority of Americans want to get down to the business of MAGA.
Managing the Executive Branch Bureaucracy: Too Early to Grade
Managing a real estate empire with line management authorities to hire and fire is a very different process from managing 1.8 million civil servants and millions more as private contractors. Trump has a lot to learn about managing a complex bureaucracy no matter how fast he cuts its size. Given his learning metabolism, this will be an area where his coming up to speed will make a difference.
Grand Strategy for America and Our Role In the World: Too Early To Grade
MAGA is closer to a grand strategy then we have had since the Kennedy presidency. However, there is much more to do: determining how we will adapt to a multi-polar world and managing opportunities for investment in an “outside-in” capacity.
Managing the Federal Budget and Contracting Budget: D+
The budget and contracting budget are where it all comes together. The President published a budget blueprint as soon as OMB Director Mulvaney was onboard.
The blueprint does not address the facts that–
- Over $11 trillion is missing from the federal government (including $6.5 trillion in 2015);
- The government is significantly out of compliance with the US Constitution and financial management laws.
DOD has not produced financial audit statements since the law requiring these statements went into effect in the 1990’s. In addition, it does not address the re-imagining/reinvention of the military and intelligence organizations and how we are going to change our military role and deployments around the world. Note the President’s switch-hit on NATO — a major global budget issue for the United States and Europe alike.
Are we going to sacrifice the empire to rebuild America or are we going to sacrifice America to maintain a global empire? Now that the debt-growth model is over, we cannot do both.
The budget is where grand strategy is grounded; and the military portion of that budget is where the pivot from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world must begin. The March blueprint increased the military budget. Let’s hope that General Mattis is working on a plan. Simply throwing more money at the situation and maintaining forces stretched thin around the world is not working.
If the budget published in May looks like the current blueprint, expect this grade to change to an “F.”
Staying Physically and Emotionally Healthy: B-
President Trump is a hard worker. Can he maintain a healthy pace? Moving his family and operations to a new city is a stressful job given the security issues. It is hard for most people to imagine the stress related to security issues for kids and grand-kids in a family of this size under such circumstances. Heading down to Florida and playing golf is a good sign. Yes, it costs money. However, we need the President to get out of Washington on a regular basis, including on weekend outings.
Rallies continue to be a great way for him to get that “outside-inside” inspiration.
Growing in the Job: A
President Trump has grown a great deal since the campaign began, since the election and since the inauguration — and he continues to grow. He is beginning to appreciate the extent of our country’s corruption and its financial addiction to criminal enterprise and war. One of his greatest accomplishments is his willingness to listen, to learn, and to persist in the face of complexity, corruption, conflicting headwinds and double binds. This characteristic is one to appreciate.