WASHINGTON – The hope of the many people who harbor reservations about Donald Trump is that the presidency will change him. That’s also what his hard-core supporters fear.
Trump’s inaugural address showed why those hopes and fears won’t materialize. It was harsh, nationalistic, lacking in civility or generosity, reflecting his dark view of politics. It had some of the same themes that Ronald Reagan offered 36 years earlier, but with none of the uplift that the 40th president radiated.
Presidents don’t grow to become new people. They can rise to occasions, alter perspectives, turn to different advisers for counsel. But the Oval Office hasn’t changed the basic compass or persona of any modern president.
“The character of the president remains the same as it was before he was president,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political science professor at Gettysburg College. “The values, personalities and character do not change. What changes is the awesome responsibilities they will face. And how they will handle that, we don’t know.”
Reagan-watchers like the journalist and historian Lou Cannon, for example, didn’t know what the ex-California governor would face or how he would react. But they knew he would be an optimist whose conservatism was tempered by pragmatism, whose oratory often was to the right of his policies and who generally enlisted capable people. He was that way in Sacramento and would be the same in Washington.
Bill Clinton’s voracious appetites, political brilliance and roguish personality were evident before and after he entered the White House on Jan. 20, 1993. It was no surprise that he was able to turn critics like the Republican congressional firebrand Newt Gingrich inside out, or that he simultaneously embraced curfews and midnight basketball as government policies to help poor communities.
Barack Obama 10 years ago was a cerebral, sometimes inspiring, policy-centric progressive, far more pragmatic than his conservative critics charge. As president it has been the same. Obamacare is not a government-run, single-payer health insurance plan. He didn’t nationalize banking in the financial crisis or push massive new spending programs. Throughout, he was no-drama Obama.
This isn’t to suggest that the job doesn’t affect the occupant. Sometimes it happens in small ways, as with the graying of Obama’s hair. Sometimes the change is bigger — Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon left their troubled presidencies in torment.
There is no way to predict how Trump would react if the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, acts provocatively, hoping to go mano a mano with the president of the United States. Nor is it clear how far he will try to pull the Republican Party into a protectionist and isolationist posture. An angry populist speech is only the roughest guide to policy priorities after promises to cut taxes, rebuild infrastructure and replace the Affordable Care Act with an undefined substitute that covers everyone at lower cost.
What we do know are the values and character traits he’ll bring to the table: a bullying bluster that he considers central to his success, a compulsion to strike back when criticized, a reliance on gut instincts, little regard for protocol or propriety, an elastic view of ethics and few ideological moorings.
For clues to the way Trump makes decisions, watch to see where he turns for advice and whom he consults last. Too much focus has been put on policy differences between the new president and his designated Cabinet members. Focus instead on the White House staff. In the modern presidency, power gravitates to those who work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At times, this influence has been constructive: Reagan relied heavily on the decisive and capable White House Chief of Staff James Baker and his deputy Michael Deaver. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was a trusted and experienced guide for George H.W. Bush. John Podesta was a steadying influence as staff chief in the turbulent final Clinton years.
Others have caused problems. George W. Bush’s confidant Karl Rove pursued a failed Republican realignment strategy that left the administration in tatters. Hillary Clinton hurt her husband politically in his first few years with a secretive style and flawed approach to health-care reform. Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic-affairs aide John Ehrlichman played to their boss’s worst instincts, eventually going to prison for obstructing justice during the Watergate scandal.
Who will be Trump’s most important confidant? Maybe his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner. Or possibly his alt-right consigliere Steve Bannon, whose fingerprints were all over the inaugural address. It could turn out to be Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. None have any governing experience. The belligerent Michael Flynn, a retired general who is national security adviser, is another contender.
One safe bet: There won’t be calls to let Trump be Trump. As he showed on Friday, Trump is already Trump. And always will be.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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