OFF TO THE RACES

Trump Rules by Gut, Not Brains

During the campaign, he connected with the “Everyman” and “Everywoman” because he knew the same things and reacted the same way. Now his lack of knowledge and experience is killing his presidency.

President Trump tries on a Stetson hat alongside Stetson's Dustin Noblitt during a "Made in America" product showcase at the White House on July 17.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

It’s ironic that what makes Donald Trump so authentic to his supporters is what is keeping him from being an effective president. His supporters love that he is not a career politician, that he hasn’t spent decades working in Washington, that he doesn’t think or behave the way ordinary politicians do.

President Trump may be a billionaire born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but that seems not to matter to the “Everyman” and “Everywoman” sitting at home on the Barcalounger watching Fox News and talking back to the television set. He is a known quantity to them from The Apprentice and the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. They don’t watch Meet the Press, Face the Nation, or This Week. They’re watching Fox and Friends and Fox News Sunday, even though Trump’s guilty pleasure is, or at least was, tuning into Morning Joe. (After all, Joe and Mika were his campaign’s earliest promoters before they turned on him.)

But the newness and freshness that Trump’s supporters like so much also means that he is learning about governing from scratch. How does the legislative process work? How does the federal budget process work? How does the national security decision-making process work? Repealing and replacing Obamacare is easy—you can do it in a matter of days, right? You mean it doesn’t work like a family business?

Through the campaign, his message resonated with Everyman and Everywoman because he approached issues like they do, straight from the gut, based on knowledge picked up watching cable television. Trump had not spent the last few decades going to symposia on these issues at think tanks in Washington and New York. He hadn’t whiled away his weekends reading Foreign Affairs. He peeked at The New York Times, but the New York tabloids satisfied his print needs. Trump connected with these voters because he knew the same things and reacted to events the same way.

But once he moved into the White House, his limited knowledge exacted a price. He was bombarded by complicated issues about which he only had a passing familiarity. After a career spent dealing with family members and trusted underlings, he found himself depending on “experts” he didn’t know and didn’t really trust—and, in some cases, shouldn’t trust. Given the torrent of leaks coming out of the White House, he can be forgiven for wondering if these people are loyal to him at all.

Then there is the temperament thing. It’s one thing for someone in the upper deck of a ballpark to bark advice to a manager or umpire. Perched on a stool in a bar or coffee shop, Everyman and Everywoman are free to offer opinions on everything, off the cuff and in real time. But serious people in government and the news media don’t take well to criticism served up in 140 characters or less.

The impulsiveness that Trump’s voters see as authenticity also shows a lack of discipline and focus, an inclination to make statements and decisions based on instinct and emotion rather than on data, intelligence, and careful analysis. It represents a tendency to see everything tactically rather than strategically and an inability to make the transition from campaigning to governing.

In a recent column in The Hill, veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman pointed to a Gallup Organization report that I had missed. For years, Gallup has periodically asked Americans two questions about their sitting presidents: first, whether that president has the personality and leadership qualities he should have and, second, whether they agree with that president on issues that matter most.

For President Obama, 60 percent said that he had the personality and leadership that was needed, but only 46 percent said they agreed with him on issues that mattered most to them. President George W. Bush had a score almost identical to Obama’s, with 59 percent saying he had the right personality and qualities of leadership but only 50 percent saying they agreed with him on issues that mattered most.

With Trump, the numbers are flipped. Forty percent say they agree with him on issues that matter most, but only 34 percent think he has the right personality and capacity as a leader. In other words, more people agree with him than think he has the characteristics needed to do the job effectively.

It has long been said that politics is the art of addition, not subtraction. Successful leaders try to convert those who have not supported them in the past. But for Trump, his Gallup job-approval percentage has never been higher than his share of the vote last November. He started with the polls at near parity with his vote, and his presidency has been an exercise in subtraction. The Everyman and Everywoman who supported him last November are pretty much with him today, but Trump has not added to those ranks and doesn’t appear likely to do so.

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