Commentary: Trump's Imprint

Jun 14, 2017

Please indulge a few seconds of personal history.  One of the reasons Columbia College, where I teach, has prospered in recent years is its online program.  I have been heavily involved in online from its first days in the late 1990s and now teach online classes.  I also update courses previously developed by other faculty.

As I speak I am redeveloping our online class on the presidency.  There are some, uh, challenges in updating a college course on the presidency in the summer of 2017.

Until January of this year there were a lot of things that were permanent about the presidency.  Everything in the Constitution about the president is fixed: he’s the chief executive officer of the country; he’s chosen by the Electoral College, not the popular vote; he is commander in chief; he vetoes legislation or signs it into law; he grants pardons and reprieves; proposes treaties; receives ambassadors; and appoints judges and other federal officials. 

The list is short and vague.  The Founding Fathers were not too worried about this because they assumed Congress would be the Big Dog in the national government and the president would be little more than a figurehead.  The very first president, George Washington, dropped this notion into the dustbin of history and the presidency has expended ever since.

Teddy Roosevelt began the expansionist presidency and his cousin Franklin took presidential activism and power to new levels.  No president since has reined it in.  Some like Eisenhower and Reagan tried but they were captives of their inheritance and the American addiction to Big Government and international might.

President Trump’s imprint so far is a legacy of his past.  He is the first president to never have been in government.  In his privately-held businesses he never had to answer to a board of directors, much less a public.

So what has he done to the presidency after five months?  Let’s follow some of the topics in the textbook I am using.

Presidential elections: He ran the most unorthodox campaign in history – chaotic organization, weak ground game, relatively little advertising, negative messages – and beat 16 Republicans for the nomination and an experienced and well-funded Democrat in the general election.

Public politics: He goes directly to his fiercely loyal and feisty base with Tweets and impromptu remarks, ignoring everyone else.  He has liberals and Democrats jabbering in impotent outrage.  The media are stunned and always trying to catch up, all the while keeping the spotlight on him.

Legislative politics: The only significant piece of legislation he has gotten action on was House passage of repeal-and-replace, which will never be passed by the Senate.  He does not have a relationship with Republican congressional leadership, nor does he appear to care.  He legislates by executive order.

Executive politics: Either willfully or through neglect he has failed to fill many of the 4,000 jobs that the president appoints.  He considers the bureaucracy part of the “deep state” that resists his brand of change.  He has publicly embarrassed and humiliated several of his top officials.  His own White House is a leaky mess.

Judicial politics: He did appoint and get confirmed to the Supreme Court Neal Gorsuch but has subsequently criticized him and before that referred to “the so-called judges” in the federal judiciary.

Foreign policy: His diplomacy is not very diplomatic and often at cross-purposes with his secretary of state.  He disparages treaties.  He insults allies and neighbors.

When American children begin to learn about politics they often start with the president.  The presidency is visible, singular, easy to understand – a father surrogate.  Today’s children are learning lessons about government and politics from this president that are quite different from the lessons that you and I learned when we were growing up. 

It’s too early to know if President Trump is rewriting the book on the American presidency.  But I can say for certain he is rewriting my class on the American presidency. 

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.