Nearly two years into the job, Trump has learned very little about how to make the more complicated (and slower) levers of the presidency work. He still tweets in anger at the actions of his own government, watching Fox News from the White House residence during his “executive time,” as if he’s a regular viewer at home — not the person sitting atop the entire enterprise. He still organizes rallies with his unstintingly loyal base when he needs a rush of approval and love, rather than pursuing the far more difficult task of achieving mass approval through hard-fought achievement. He is someone who likes to look busy, rather than actually be busy. He likes to look powerful, and in so doing, so nakedly and needfully, he underscores what little power he actually has. Trump is an instant-gratification president for an instant-gratification age.
For example: The president has recently taken to filming short, almost daily videos in the Rose Garden, unloading talking points on viewers about how he’s making America great again. There appears to be little reason for the videos beyond simply giving Trump the impression he’s doing something rather than nothing. According to New York’s Olivia Nuzzi, “five current and former officials from both Donald Trump’s White House and campaign as well as one former official from the Trump Organization [say] the purpose of this on-camera exercise is simple: It makes him feel (and, he believes, look) good.”
The videos are a Trumpian update to what has long been understood as the only absolute power the presidency actually has: the power to command attention. The president can make others care about a topic simply because he’s president — much of a president’s inherent power comes simply from stature and the ability to cajole and coax others to pay attention. But that alone does not lead to respect. And in some cases, it leads to the hard opposite.
Trump is an instant-gratification president for an instant-gratification age. He is someone who likes to look busy, rather than actually be busy.
These inherent limitations at the heart of the presidency have been well-known to generations of political scientists. Richard Neustadt’s seminal 1960 book, Presidential Power, outlined it simply: “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” As he wrote, “The essence of a President’s persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority.”
Teddy Roosevelt, of course, had a simpler term for the true power of the presidency: the bully pulpit. He originally meant it in what was then the widely known usage of “bully,” a synonym for superb, wonderful, grand — a phrase Roosevelt used regularly to compliment others’ great work: “Bully for you!” Good for you!
Over time, his framing of presidential power has been updated by subsequent presidents — including Teddy’s relative, FDR, who modernized the pulpit through his fireside chats — and eventually the phrase was codified by William Safire, who for a generation served as the official steward of the political lexicon and defined the presidential bully pulpit as “the active use of the president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.”
The president can, effectively, set the agenda for everyone else — and Trump has done that more effectively than anyone before, using his ability to provoke and divide to ensure that he drives every news cycle. World leaders, the media, and Americans — both #MAGA and #Resistance alike — wake up each day and now reflexively check Twitter. His rallies make such good TV that during the 2016 campaign, cable news channels actually preferred to broadcast an empty podium, awaiting Trump, than provide live coverage of Hillary Clinton actively making a speech. Yet from the earliest days of his presidential campaign and carrying forward to his “American Carnage” inaugural address and into the Oval Office, Trump’s use of the presidential bully pulpit has a much greater emphasis on the modern usage of “bully,” his Twitter feed a daily cudgel for his enemies, no matter how small or insignificant.
With a more effective leader — and one more focused on the day-to-day of running a government and making deals — Trump’s Twitter feed could have been a potent weapon unlike anything the world had seen before. Yet even here, with this unprecedented tool, Trump’s threats on Twitter carry less weight than they did before. His ability to set the daily agenda remains unparalleled, but his lack of engagement in following through on the agenda — of doing the hard work necessary to make deals in Congress or on the international stage — undermines his own power. For Trump, Twitter is simply a tool for distraction and venting.
Robert Caro, who through his work on LBJ has become perhaps the most careful student of presidential power, says that his research makes him think Lord Acton’s famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” actually doesn’t get it quite right. To Caro, the effect of power is more subtle: “Power reveals — it doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”
Giving Donald Trump all the power of the presidency has offered him a simple, rude revelation: Even if people have to stand when you enter the room, they can still laugh at you.