“I’m Not Gonna Own This”
Trump’s Ignorance About His Job
I took my first Political Science (a possible oxymoron?) course in the fall of 1967. It was entitled “The American Political System” (or something close to that). In studying the U.S. Executive branch there were two texts assigned: Clinton Rossister’s The American Presidency (1956) and Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power (1960). Even though these books are over half a century old, they could well serve our current Chief Executive as primers regarding the role of the President of the United States. Today’s Blast is going to focus on Rossiter’s work, excerpted from a November 11, 1956 New York Times. In his analysis, Rossiter outlines 8 (eight) essential roles the President plays in our Constitutional system (some specified in the Constitution, others developed over time as the nation & the office evolved). What I would like to do is simply present Rossiter’s ideas regarding the role of the United States President here and allow the reader to gauge how well Donald J. Trump is fulfilling the basic roles required of our Chief Executive, as described by Professor Rossiter. (Boldface indicates the Blast’s “editing”)
(Written at the end of the NY Times piece, I believe this summary introduces Rossiter’s work best.)
Having engaged in this piecemeal analysis of the categories of presidential leadership, we must now fit the pieces back together into a seamless unity. For that, after all, is what the presidency is, and I hope this exercise in political taxonomy has not obscured the paramount fact that this focus of democratic leadership is a single office filled by a single man. The president is not one kind of leader one part of the day, another kind in another part.
Head of the Executive Branch:
“We cannot savor the fullness of the president’s duties unless we recall that he is held primarily accountable for the ethics, loyalty, efficiency, frugality, and responsiveness to the public’s wishes of the two and one-third million Americans.” The president has no more important tasks than to set a high personal example of integrity and industry for all who serve the nation, and to transmit a clear lead downward through his chief lieutenants to all who help shape the policies by which we live.
Leadership in foreign affairs flows today from the president—or it does not flow at all.
Commander in Chief:
In peace and war he is the supreme commander of the armed forces, the living guarantee of the American belief in “the supremacy of the civil over military authority.”
The president alone is in a political, constitutional, and practical position to provide such leadership, and he is therefore expected, within the limits of propriety, to guide Congress in much of its lawmaking activity.
His tasks as leader of Congress are difficult and delicate, yet he must bend to them steadily or be judged a failure. The president who will not give his best thoughts to leading Congress, more so the president who is temperamentally or politically unfitted to ‘get along with Congress,’’ is now rightly considered a national liability.
The lives of Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and the two Roosevelts should be enough to remind us that the president draws much of his real power from his position as leader of his party. By playing the grand politician with unashamed zest, the first of these men gave his epic administration a unique sense of cohesion, the second rallied doubting Republican leaders and their followings to the cause of the Union, and the other three achieved genuine triumphs as catalysts of Congressional action. The president is inevitably the nation’s No. I political boss.
Public Opinion Leader:
While he acts as political chieftain of some, he serves as moral spokesman for all. It took the line of presidents some time to sense the nation’s need for a clear voice, but since the day when Andrew Jackson thundered against the Nullifiers of South Carolina, no effective president has doubted his prerogative to speak the people’s mind on the great issues of his time, to serve, in Wilson’s words, as ‘the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.”
Chief of State:
The role of Chief of State may often seem trivial, yet it cannot be neglected by a president who proposes to stay in favor and, more to the point, in touch with the people, the ultimate support of all his claims to leadership. And whether or not he enjoys this role, no president can fail to realize that his many powers are invigorated, indeed are given a new dimension of authority, because he is the symbol of our sovereignty, continuity and grandeur as a people.
The framers of the Constitution took a momentous step when they fused the dignity of a king and the power of a prime minister in one elective office—when they made the president a national leader in the mystical as well as the practical sense.
Leader of the Free World:
Finally, the president has been endowed—whether we or our friends abroad like it or not—with a global role as a leader of the free nations. His leadership in this area is not that of a dominant executive. The power he exercises is in a way comparable to that which he holds as a leader of Congress. Senators and congressmen can, if they choose, ignore the president’s leadership with relative impunity. So, too, can our friends abroad; the action of Britain and France in the Middle East is a case in point. But so long as the United States remains the richest and most powerful member of any coalition it may enter, then its president’s words and deeds will have a direct bearing on the freedom and stability of a great many other countries.
He exerts every kind of leadership every moment of the day, and every kind feeds upon and into all the others. He is a more exalted leader of ritual because he can guide opinion, a more forceful leader in diplomacy because he commands the armed forces personally, a more effective leader of Congress because he sits at the top of his party. The conflicting demands of these categories of leadership give him trouble at times, but in the end all unite to make him a leader without any equal in the history of democracy.
In a constitutional system compounded of diversity and antagonism, the presidency looms up as the countervailing force of unity and harmony. In a society ridden by centrifugal forces, it is the only point of reference we all have in common. The relentless progress of this continental republic has made the presidency our truly national political institution.
Based on Rossiter’s descriptions of the many roles a President must fulfill on a daily basis, our concern really must be that the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue does not conceive of the office as a multifaceted, complicated, and difficult challenge. Clueless in his ignorance, Trump bumbles forward only looking for his name in the headlines or listening for it mentioned, again and again, in news broadcasts. His simplistic and even childish grasp of the intricacies of politics and policy combined with his absence of a moral compass not only make him unfit for the office but also make him a danger to our nation.
Tomorrow: Richard Neustadt on Presidential Power