Life-shaping forces are constantly in motion but do not, at the moment, predict emerging realities. Clarity is only possible when yesterday is understood.
While life-changing forces have sped up, we can only understand them by slowing down. Few anticipated the election of a radically different candidate. Few anticipated the power of a small group who changed the way most Americans look at same-sex marriage. And, understanding both the Industrial Revolution and the emergent computer industry provided insight into today’s societal and economic disruptions.
The turn of the calendar poses some really interesting questions. Gatherings for conversation should not bore. But, since we are days away from President Trump, I am going to take a quick look back and forward in an effort to gain perspective on his likely trajectory.
We have had forty-four presidents. The constitution and laws have limited their power, but each has had some impact on the institution. While every president has had his “we are at a crossroads” theme, most have been forced into patience by the difficulties inherent in leading such a large institution that is guided by lifers while checked and balanced by Congress and the Supreme Court.
George W. Bush might have been a good small-bore president, but 9/11 resulted in an on and off again National Guarder becoming the top general, so to speak. He went beyond his capacity to understandably lead. It doesn’t take too long for the public to sense leadership without understanding.
Perhaps the Affordable Care Act would have fallen of its own weight but the dysfunctional roll out of exchanges and the mistaken claim that “if you like your health care plan you can keep it” crippled President Obama. The Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010; less than nine months later the people’s legislative chamber was controlled by the Republican Party.
The inauguration of Donald Trump is two days away and while there will be claims and counterclaims about how well he is doing; our democracy will make a definitive judgment less than twenty-three months later. And, given relentless polling and the influence it has on legislators who want nothing more than to be re-elected, judgment day will not await the November, 2018 elections.
Rather than masquerade as a historian let me simply look back a few decades. Donald Trump resembles Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Neither had a reservoir of goodwill and when boldface error became evident, through the swamps of Vietnam and Watergate, the muck exerted an irreversible hold.
I joined President Reagan’s administration a year ahead of the full revelations of the Iran-Contra affair, the infamous arms for hostages trade. Indictments and convictions ensued, and on March 4, 1987, Reagan delivered a nationally televised address, taking full responsibility for his Administration’s actions. I could feel the strength of his Presidency ebbing and saw, in the President’s admission, the possibilities of renewal.
According to Gallup, President Reagan’s approval ratings plummeted from 63% in late October to 47% in early December and stayed relatively low throughout 1987. By the time he left office his ratings had rebounded to 53%. Similar declines and rebounds occurred with Bill Clinton.
The President-elect has been in Spring Training the last two months; he will go directly to his World Series games, beginning Friday. His penchant for attacking almost anything that moves in an opposite direction will not serve him well. He should never forget that the self-important will only give respect reciprocally.
Trump knows that he would not hire somebody to run his hotels without hotel experience. Yet, his tendency to err when tweeting and then leave it to subordinates to clean up, portray a leader who is confused. Silence serves preparation which then serves clarity and ultimately public confidence.
Washington needs disruption, but history shows it disrupts more than it is disrupted. To disrupt effectively, embedded interests must be understood and finessed. Finesse and Twitter are mostly mutually exclusive.
The 45th President-to-be needs to take a deep breath and probe for insight from those whose pictures adorn a residence that will not be called Trump Tower. He can be both unconventional and conventional and succeed. If he chooses to be wholly unconventional (often off-the-wall), he will help elect those who will start impeachment proceedings in the next Congress.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.