Two events this week suggest that the next president of the United States will have an incredibly low bar to meet to be a success. The reactions to them suggest that a lot of folks are ok with that. And that’s a problem.
Let’s review: on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey gave a (genuinely) inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards. Then, on Tuesday, President Trump allowed the media to televise his hour-long meeting with bipartisan leaders of Congress to discuss immigration and other matters.
The reactions from the press and others was near-rapturous: the Oprah 2020 bandwagon short into hyper speed. People started parsing her every utterance about clues to her policy inclinations. Lots of observers argued that, if you’re going to have a celebrity as president, why not someone who can inspire? As CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, “You could close your eyes and imagine that speech being given in Iowa, let’s say, or as a campaign kickoff.”
Meanwhile, the Trump meeting/press gaggle was must-see TV on the cable networks. Clearly intended by the White House to prove that the President is not, as Michael Wolff’s book suggests, an unstable moron, the stunt appeared to (mostly) do the trick. For a day, the public discussion about Trump was not about his daily work habits or stream-of-consciousness tweeting. With two Democratic leaders cleverly seated on each arm, Donald Trump looked, well, like he belonged there. Pundit Michael Medved tweeted that “the session today should end all talk (for now, at least) that he’s not ‘mentally fit’ for the job. Today, he looks unequivocally presidential.”
So there you have it: for the 46th president to succeed, he or she needs to give rousing speeches and hold meetings without throwing food at people like a colobus monkey. In other words, the president needs to look and sound the part.
The problem is, there is a hell of a lot to the job that a good speech or meeting doesn’t show.
In many ways, politics is like other professions: if you don’t do it every day, it looks a lot more glamorous than it really is. Most lawyers would tell you that the reality of lawyering is not what you see on Boston Legal: a lot less confronting witnesses in tense courtrooms and a lot more poring over case law and endless depositions. Doctors don’t spend the bulk of their time straddling patients on gurneys in the ER, performing tracheotomies with a pen as the blood gushes everywhere. (If you’ve ever had a rectal exam, remember that it’s not much fun on the giving end, either.)
Being a successful president demands a set of skills and a temperament that the cameras don’t capture. For starters, you need a good understanding of policy. Although it’s Congress’ job to write the bills, the president isn’t there just to sign them. Presidents need to be able to get on the phone with members of Congress and make the case for their agenda. And since lawmakers get to specialize in certain issues through the committee system, presidents need to know enough about a wide array of issues to hold their side of the argument. Presidents need to understand the intricacies of legislating, knowing, for example, that when a Senator asks you to support a “clean DACA” bill, she means a bill that does not include funding for a border wall. If you can’t figure these things out, the legislators will win every time, advancing policies that won’t look like yours.
Presidents also need to make sure their public pronouncements don’t undermine their bargaining positions. No member of Congress wants to back politically sensitive legislation if they think that the president will change his mind and leave you isolated. That requires having the discipline to stick to a position, even when you hear all the voices on the other side pushing you in the other direction with well-thought points. Without a clear sense of where you stand and why, every argument will sound convincing. And if you get a reputation of telling one side one thing in private and something else to their opponents, nobody is going to listen to you.
Don’t presidents have policy advisors to help them navigate the intricacies of legislation? Yes, but its’ not their name on the door of the Oval Office. When a vote is on the line, a recalcitrant Senator does not want to hear from a White House staffer. Putting the full weight of the presidency on the phone can do wonders for twisting arms. And since it’s not uncommon for advisers to disagree with each other, the president has to make the final call, which can be even more difficult when some advisors have hidden agendas of their own.
More than that, presidents need the temperament and discipline to make calls on issues that pop up out of nowhere, with at times limited information. Does North Korea really have the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland U.S.? If the U.S. comes out in support of the Iranian protesters, will that help, or will it raise expectations of support America can’t possibly fulfill? Meanwhile, there are nearly 200 other nations and international alliances looking for guidance – and asking for favors – from the U.S. If Angela Merkel calls to discuss Syria, she doesn’t want to hear a speech or be a prop in a photo op.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with good optics; part of the president’s role is to rally the public, use the bully pulpit, demonstrate the power and prestige of the office through Rose Garden ceremonies, State of the Union addresses and the like. All that matters.
And there is nothing wrong, in of itself, with political neophytes running for office. To be perfectly fair to Oprah, she may very well have the skills and temperament to be a good, or even great, president (and she hasn’t even said she’s running).
But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Trump Era, it is that politics is a discipline, and like, being a doctor or lawyer, success demands a lot more than what you see on TV. Perhaps had someone informed Mr. Trump back in 2015 that life as Commander-in-Chief is a lot less glamorous (and a lot harder) than what it looked like in Air Force One, it’s entirely possible that right now he’d be spending lots of time playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, watching Fox and Friends and tweeting insults at Hillary Clinton (in other words, the same as now, but without the nuclear button).
The real danger comes not from celebrities and other political neophytes running for office. After all, anybody can run for president if they meet the qualifications in the Constitution. And having prior government experience is pointedly not one of those requirements. Rather, the danger is that the voting public makes choices based on superficiality.
Imagine a scenario where the President is little more than a figurehead, with no capacity to make tough decisions, leaving those decisions to unelected (and unvetted) advisers. Or worse, a President who knows little but thinks he does, making fact-free and poorly thought-out pronouncements that divide the country and reduce faith in government.
We can probably survive one of those, but not another.