A Public Affairs Perspective on U.S. President Trump

On January 20th, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. His inaugural address was short on words, but filled with grand promises. Rather than commenting on the promises or the policies that may flow from them (there are many in the media and think tanks doing that already), let’s look at things from a public affairs perspective.

I can see four things that will affect his ability to carry out his promises.

1) Lack of government experience.  President Trump, his closest counselors, and many of his nominees have no government experience.  While this may have been a desirable attribute during the campaign, it will be a steep learning curve in governing.  To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, they don’t know what they don’t know.  Even worse, Trump seems to think that governing is like running a business.  George Schultz (President Reagan’s Secretary of State) who had experience in government and business observed that business is organized like a pyramid, while government has a flat organization, stemming from the concept of checks and balances with a resulting disposition to delay…. Government action is crablike at best, with an overwhelming emphasis on policy formulation as opposed to execution.”  (Schultz, Harvard Business Review, Nov. – Dec. 1979,pp 94-95)  From a public affairs perspective what we want to watch is whether Trump can change fundamentally how the U.S. government works so that it is more focused on execution.

2) Managing people and process.  It was reported that when President Obama met then President-Elect Trump in the White House, he advised two things: select the best people and create a process that enables staff to make sure the President has the information and the options he needs to make a decision.  Time will tell whether the people on the White House staff and the Cabinet are the best people.  What we know already, however, is that there are vulnerabilities in the process.  

In the Trump White House, the role of the various counselors is not clear.  Reince Priebus is Chief of Staff, but it is not clear whether he has the power his predecessors in other Administrations had.  The relationship between the White House staff and the Cabinet is also not clear.  Will the heads of departments (some of which are like small countries in terms of budget and employees) have real power or will the White House staff call the shots? 

Will there be coherence in policy formulation and execution? We saw in the confirmation hearings of Trump’s nominees that some are not in lock-step with their boss.  Some of them articulated policies at variance with what Trump said during the campaign. Either they will be reeled in by the White House or they will assert their independence or resign.  

3) Trump’s relationship with the Congress.  Although the Congress has Republican majorities, the Senators and Representatives will in due course assert their independence.  In the final analysis, each represents his or her State or District and what they need to do to be re-elected will govern.  The old adage “where you stand depends on where you sit” will play out.  

4) Relationship with the bureaucracy.   The leadership at the top may change every 4 or 8 years, but the people in the civil service stay.  The bureaucracy has its own will and own speed can thwart, for good or ill, the best laid plans.  

We cannot predict how successful the new President will be in adapting to running a government as opposed to running a business or at managing these relationships, but as public affairs professionals these are the areas we need to observe as we learn to interact with a new Administration.