Say what you want about President Trump, but he’s accomplishing much of what he wants to do. Maybe that's because he grasps a reality in today’s politics: The president is not our daddy.
That’s one role presidents have played since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created an activist government during the Great Depression, spoke to Americans through radio fireside chats, and shepherded the country through most of World War II. Before him, the president was a relatively remote part of Americans’ everyday existence. After him, presidents led the country through the Cold War. When the space shuttle exploded or terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the president comforted the nation and led the response.
In political science terms, the president is the “head of state,” the face of the country. Unlike some other democracies, here the same person is also the head of government. Great Britain has a prime minister to wallow in the muck of politics, and a queen who sits on the throne above it all. Presidents have tried to temper their language and speak in unifying terms knowing they played both roles.
But now that the country has become more divided and doesn’t face a common enemy, it’s become harder to serve as head of state. There’s no point in trying to be America’s daddy, and besides, that’s not President Trump’s nature anyway. He’s about “winning,” not nurturing. Forty percent of the country is with him, about half is against him, and nothing much is going to change those two groups. He knows most of his 40 percent fear and dislike Nancy Pelosi more than they do Vladimir Putin. His presidency depends on holding on to that base, and that’s what he’s done.
That’s why he was able to make that speech the other day in Mississippi. Republican officials across the country were avoiding criticizing Dr. Christine Blasely Ford, Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser. Even Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who doesn’t hold much back, called her “sympathetic.” Trump, however, went on the attack before a cheering crowd, ridiculing her inability to remember some details of her alleged assault. According to a Washington Post report, the speech galvanized Republican senators. It shifted the conversation and showed Trump was fighting for his nominee.
The upside for Trump is that he is winning many of his battles while he still can. In his first two years in office, he has shifted the Supreme Court’s ideological direction for decades, cut taxes, and remade the Republican Party in his image.
The downside for him is that he will never speak for the nation or perform the role of comforter-in-chief. Too many Americans will reject him if he tries. If Democrats win the House and/or the Senate in November, he’ll find himself opposed by a bitterly partisan and energized Congress.
On the other hand, that opposition largely would have occurred regardless of his approach, just as Republicans and many Americans opposed President Obama. Obama was elected speaking in grand, unifying terms. But once Republicans gained power in Congress, he could accomplish little through legislation and achieved his ends when possible through executive orders and regulations. He spoke for the nation on May 1, 2011, when he announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. Other than that, not very much.
What happens when Trump is no longer president? Will Americans react to this bitterly partisan environment by electing a President Reagan type – a fatherly or motherly political figure?
Or will Trump’s approach be the new model? Many of the Democrats mentioned as leading contenders are quite partisan. It may be impossible for any president to be a unifier these days, regardless of his or her approach or temperament. Elected officials from both parties who reach across the aisle are out of office, retiring, losing or dead.
So while the next president may not tweet so much, he or she may be pretty tough. Half the citizenry REALLY may not like him or her, but they’ll just have to deal with it. Their candidate will have lost.
The new reality may be that presidents focus more on winning and less on unifying, which they can’t do anyway. It’s a country, not a family.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.