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Donald Trump’s Frenetic, Exhausting Presidency

The McCourtney Institute is proud to present Dr. Mary Stuckey's latest piece. Professor Stuckey is new to Penn State this fall. She is an expert in presidential rhetoric. We hope to have more of her work to share with you.

It is common for presidential scholars to remark on the exhausting nature of Donald Trump’s presidency. Colleagues of mine have jokingly announced their intentions to ask for special consideration on matters of annual reports, teaching evaluations, and other forms of professional documents. Trump’s White House is in perpetual motion, and it has a frenetic quality unique to modern times.

I know from my own work that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Hundred Days were also marked by an uncommon energy. Legislation was written practically overnight. According to New Deal historian Adam Cohen, in those early months in office, “Roosevelt shepherded fifteen major laws through Congress, prodded along by two fireside chats and thirty press conferences. He created an alphabet soup of new agencies—the AAA, the CCC, the FERA, the NRA, to administer the laws and bring relief to farmers, industry, the unemployed. . . .In an article entitled “Laws for Everything,” the New York Times declared Roosevelt’s dizzying pace to be little short of a marvel” (3).

Like Roosevelt, the initial days of Donald Trump’s presidency seem to have considerable energy. But his White House is not FDR’s.

Three things differentiate the two administrations. First, the energy of FDR’s White House was directed at making law. It was about accomplishing policy goals through existing mechanisms and sometimes inventing new ones. FDR took office during a national crisis and he hurled policy at that crisis. He understood how government worked and he used that understanding to achieve his aims.

Second, it was essentially an orderly process. The president sat in the center of activity, orchestrating and directing it. His policies and programs weren’t always coherent, but they were prioritized and directed by the man in the Oval Office. He was indisputably in charge of his own administration.

Largely because of these two things, FDR left behind a record of unmatched legislative achievement.

But there is a third difference. Roosevelt conveyed a sense of energy combined with an equally important sense of calm. FDR’s response to crisis was a version of “We got this”; there was no need to get excited, and certainly no need to panic. He communicated the news of events—both good and bad—with the same serenity. Presidents since FDR have not always had his energy, nor his élan, but they did always strive to convey that sense of calm and control. Until now.

Donald Trump’s White House may be as energetic as Roosevelt’s, but it is not calm, and it is not controlled. His record may also be unmatched, but unlike Roosevelt’s, it is difficult to characterize it as any kind of “achievement.”

It is true that despite an overall assessment of Trump as a weak president, he has undertaken significant consequential actions. The Washington Post recently noted that he has rolled back Obama-era rules concerning the practices of financial advisers and debt-relief, has continued sale of a harmful pesticide, and is eliminating other regulations as well.

These rules were put in place through Executive Orders under President Obama, and they can be undone just as quickly. But of course, that means they can be reinstated just as quickly. Despite boasting that significant, lasting changes would follow almost immediately upon his election, they remain almost entirely absent.

To offer just a few of the more prominent items on the list: his staff is in a constant welter of appointment and resignation; a number of important positions remain unfilled. His original immigration ban was voided by the courts and other policies face litigation as well. His initial attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military faced considerable pushback and had to be reinstated over Pentagon objections. Even then the implementation was delayed until after further study. Since June, he has been under investigation by a Special Counsel for possible obstruction of justice. His signature policy, the promise to “Repeal and Replace” Obamacare, failed in the Senate. Tensions with North Korea have escalated, and on the domestic front, his responses to the violence in Charlottesville was widely criticized. He decided to rescind DACA over House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders’ objections, a move that is unlikely to improve the relationship between the White House and Congress. His wall is no closer to construction than it was on inauguration day. Even the White House web page dedicated to “President Trump’s 100 Days of Historic Accomplishments,” lists the number of executive orders and pieces of legislation signed, but not their content, substantive achievements being apparently hard to come by.

President Trump seems to be failing and flailing.

Both his supporters and his opponents are struggling to keep up. There is so much activity, and so little of it of any significance, that it is exhausting everyone. Trump’s attention span seems limited; even Republican strategist Karl Rove criticized his inability to focus. His priorities are difficult to guess, much less to assess. This peripatetic leadership style creates real problems both for his adversaries and his supporters. Opposing Trump is difficult because his disputants must always take him both seriously and literally. They must assume his every tweet is a statement of impending policy action, and they must respond or risk policy results. This requires a wearying state of constant vigilance.

It is equally hard for Trump’s supporters. It is difficult, as FDR’s staff learned, to write sustainable policy on the fly. Quickly written legislation is open to challenge, as Trump has discovered. A president who acts in overmuch haste creates PR problems. It is hard to design a coherent program for a president who does not seem to have a sense of his own priorities. And, as I argued recently, it is very hard to manage expectations when Trump doesn’t seem to understand the importance of the bully pulpit.

A White House governed by the kind of unfocused, frenetic energy that has so far characterized this administration makes things difficult for everyone. It therefore makes prospects for major legislative change unlikely. What’s more, such a climate is surely unsustainable across a four-year term.