Redefining the presidency by bucking precedent

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Donald Trump’s early presidency has taken shape by defying precedents established by his predecessors.

Unlike other presidents who have risen to the occasion, Trump’s performance would fall outside what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Trump has not changed his bombastic rhetorical tone from the tumultuous 2016 campaign, nor has he attempted to govern from the political center, as his predecessors have done. Trump seemingly shuns the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt that “no man can occupy the office of President without realizing that he is President of all the people.” Record low approval rates shows Americans have taken notice. Even some conservatives have dubbed him “the nation’s worst president,” knocking Andrew Johnson to No. 2.

{mosads}Trump’s callous disregard for objective truth has infected public policy. He has banned some federal agencies from using certain words that represent an inconvenient truth. He terms “fake news” propagated by the “dishonest media,” as a means to sow disingenuous seeds of doubt among his most rabid supporters that it is the system that is against them. The death of objective truth and the rise of alternative facts have created an unprecedented drifting into chaos.


A presidential record

Let’s compare Trump’s record against his immediate predecessor on this issue. According to an analysis by The New York Times, Trump has told 103 lies or falsehoods in his first 10 months in office, nearly six times as many as the 18 told by Barack Obama in his full eight years as president.

In the past, Trump denounced his predecessor as a “habitual vacationer” and articulated his own vacation philosophy: “Don’t take vacations. What’s the point? If you’re not enjoying your work, you’re in the wrong job.” During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised that “I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off.”

After almost a year in office, Obama had taken 26 days of vacation, while Trump may be proud that he has beat his predecessor’s record with 97 days of vacation so far.

And what has Trump done on his vacations? While he was campaigning for president he told a crowd “because I’m going to be working for you, I’m not going to have time to go golfing.” He continually criticized Obama for playing too much golf.

At the end of Obama’s first year in office, he had played golf 24 times. Trump has played golf at least 35 times, and perhaps more since it’s hard to get clear information from his staff of when he’s actually on the links.

In addition to golfing vacations, the president is a media junkie. According to a recent New York Times report, the president “spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television.”

Obama once noted “the most important thing you need to do [in this job] is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.” Trump is cannibalizing any time available for serious thought with reacting to media portrayals of his administration.

And, of course, as our first Twitter president, Trump spends a significant amount of time on the medium to issue policy decisions, attack his enemies and retweet inflammatory material — often surprising his own staff and cabinet.

Staffing the White House

A second measure of Trump’s presidency is the high turnover rate for his White House staff and cabinet.

Trump has either fired or accepted the resignation of more than a 20 senior White House staff or cabinet members in his first year in office, including his national security adviser, acting attorney general, secretary of Health and Human Services Department, FBI director, chief of staff, press secretary, chief strategist — far eclipsing such departures for previous presidents. There are rumblings of further departures of critical staff.

In addition, the president has waged an unprecedented war against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to force their resignations, exposing major policy disconnects between the president and cabinet members.

Core factors in Trump’s management of White House staff and cabinet are his distrust of experts, disdain for facts, and oversized ego. He has repeatedly doubted intelligence experts about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, preferring to believe Russia instead. He recently said when it comes to the State Department, “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” 

Counting accomplishments

Finally, let’s look at his accomplishments compared to his predecessors.

Many presidents have a defining issue or crisis that strikes in their first year. FDR faced the Great Depression and the unraveling of the banking system. Harry Truman was thrust into ending World War II and his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. John F. Kennedy miscalculated with the Bay of Pigs invasion. Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Gerald Ford faced backlash over his pardon of Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt. 

As a political apprentice with little interest in policy details but only “winning,” Trump has been plagued by his response to the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election (one of the earliest major presidential scandals); the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea; and devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. He failed to recognize the complexities of repealing and replacing ObamaCare, famously declaring that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated” — and was unable to deliver on one of his signature campaign promise.

Contrary to the president’s statements, he ranks last in the number of bills signed into law in the first year of office at least as far back as Eisenhower. As of Dec. 21, 2017, Trump had signed just 94 bills into law, below the next lowest of 102 by George W. Bush. His only major legislative accomplishment was the passage of a bill by Congress revising the tax code, unless you count a bill permitting mentally ill people to buy guns.

His attempts at legislating by executive order — a practice he previously condemned – resulted in the courts overturning or putting on hold many of his policies. His policy decisions have often uprooted long established practices. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement, leaving the nation alone among the nations of the world not agreeing to it. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and received a rebuke from the United Nations.

George Washington was very careful in making decisions, recognizing his actions would set precedents for generations to come. Trump seems to delight in upending precedents and the established order more than any president. 

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, BBC and others.

Tags Barack Obama Barack Obama Donald Trump Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Mike Purdy Oval Office Rex Tillerson White House

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