By Lee H. Hamilton
I have significant differences with Donald Trump’s political stances, but I want him to enjoy a successful presidency. It’s good for neither the country nor the world when a U.S. president struggles or fails.
Yet I also believe that constructive criticism can help a president grow more capable. It’s in this spirit that I want to take a hard look at the Trump presidency so far.
President Trump’s personal and stylistic approaches may have served him in business and on the campaign trail, but are problematic in office. He has an unfortunate tendency to dodge blame for things that go wrong. He makes charges with no evidence to support them and refuses to admit he was wrong. He routinely over-inflates his achievements, as when he recently declared that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days,” an assertion that no one familiar with FDR’s and other notable presidents’ first months in office would accept.
Crucially, he does not appear to know how to use or coordinate the levers of American power — economic, diplomatic and political. He appreciates military power, but lacks a coherent, comprehensive strategy and the clarity, consistency, and discipline required to apply one.
President Trump has also shown little evidence of the political skills necessary for success. He has been unable to build coalitions in Washington or rally public support around difficult-to-achieve policy goals. He shows little instinct for finding natural allies to help push legislation through. He shows no interest in inspiring and uniting Americans. And he has hurt himself with his bluster, his tenuous relationship with the truth and his flouting of the rules of ethics, transparency and conflicts of interest.
Throughout the campaign and his first weeks in office, he painted issues in easy-to-solve, black-and-white terms. Until, that is, he began to confront them as president. Recently, he has admitted that issue after issue is more complicated than he’d expected, which suggests that he had not considered them carefully before.
The president has made some solid choices, putting in place a measured, professional national security team in Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. But his policy rhetoric bears little relation to the reality of his accomplishments. We do not have universal, comprehensive health care at lower cost. Tax reform, immigration, cyber reform — it’s hard to find any meaningful progress on any of them.
Chances appear iffy for infrastructure investment in our states and communities that is not a boondoggle. Given the president’s erratic, impulsive leadership and dizzying string of policy changes, where will we find stability over the next few years?
One source of hope is the president himself. His policy switches on China and Syria may have been abrupt, but they moved us in the right direction. He seems to be capable of learning — and reversing himself — on a broad range of policies. He appears willing to accept the sober, mainstream advice of his national security team.
Ordinarily, I’d include Congress in any list of institutions capable of stabilizing a presidency that could go off the rails, but it seems unable to help the president improve his policies. Instead, other forces have stepped into that role. The courts — especially on immigration — have kept him within the bounds of the Constitution. State and local governments are stepping up to lead on a variety of issues, including climate change. The media have been crucial in highlighting problems within the administration and the implications of its policies. And ordinary citizens have grown vocal in their opinions and active in trying to safeguard and improve their own corners of the world.
These are hopeful developments. But the Trump administration is still struggling to get on track, consumed with internal problems, at a time when we desperately need to move ahead on the serious problems we confront at home and abroad. My hope is that he can find his way to asserting the leadership the country and the world order.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.