A month after the 2016 presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump is setting up his cabinet and preparing to transition his administration into power. But what sort of challenges are coming? We spoke with John D. Graham, the Dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and author of two books on the presidency: Bush on the Home Front and Obama on the Home Front for insight on those quesitons.
Both of these books deal with the challenges presidents can face in domestic policies and local affairs. Graham answered our questions on how the Trump administration could navigate its upcoming move into power.
IU Press: As President-elect Trump looks past the transition into power, what challenges will he face in his first weeks in office?
John D. Graham: He could face a surprise. President Obama did. When his campaign positions were devised, President Obama certainly had no reason to foresee that his initial policy actions in January 2009 would focus on the rescue of failing financial institutions and auto companies. Obama claimed that voters repudiated the economic policies of the Republican Party, but he had no electoral mandate for short-term economic policies. Under the circumstances, his track record enacting short term economic policy should be judged as impressive. Obama’s deployment of executive powers in this period was masterful. He worked the informal collaboration with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to help forestall a repeat of the Great Depression, to boost confidence on Wall Street, and to lower interest rates enough to help revive car sales and home construction. Trump appears to be inheriting a relatively strong economy but there may be other domestic policy issues lurking that will test him early in his term.
IUP: You’ve covered the “home front” efforts of Presidents Bush and Obama throughout their time in office. What similarities do you see in their experiences in office?
JDG: As President Barack Obama’s two-term presidency comes to a close, I am struck by a disheartening phenomenon that both Bush and Obama experienced. In football there is an infraction called “piling on,” but in politics there is no penalty for this behavior. I refer to the ease with which blame is assigned to whomever is the current president for virtually everything bad that happens in Washington, DC, or even in the country or world at large. That blame comes not simply from the president’s partisan opponents but from members of the president’s party as well. Trump can expect this to an even greater degree because of the divisions in his own party. The honeymoon, if there even is one, will be brief.
IUP: So, if he learns from the examples of presidents Bush and Obama, what should Trump do domestically in his first months in office?
JDG: In the book, I offer a series of lessons learned from the first months of the Obama presidency. Let me summarize two of them. Trump should begin his term with an initiative that appeals to his base. President Obama did this with the Affordable Care Act and the economic stimulus package. He compromised too much on the details to please some of his base but he was attuned to their priorities. Secondly, Trump should offer one or more legislative initiatives that appeal to centrists, especially initiatives that facilitate collaboration between pragmatists from both parties in the Congress. Obama didn’t do this. He was perceived as a transformational liberal because his domestic priorities were overwhelmingly progressive. One result of this was a series of legislative votes that resulted in enormous losses for the Democrats in the first midterm election in Obama’s first term. Obama would have protected his party by pursuing his agenda through executive action. Whether they like it or not, it is crucial—under conditions of polarization—for presidents to see themselves as leader of their political party as well as leader of the country. One of the fascinating aspects of the early days of the Trump presidency will be whether he sees himself as the Republican Party leader and acts accordingly to protect his majorities in Congress or whether he remains the outsider and lets the chips fall where they may.