Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

The President-Elect And His Tweets

Over the past few weeks, as the Donald Trump transition team has vetted candidates for Cabinet-level positions and geared up for the new administration that will take office next year, we’ve started to get a sense of what the next four years will be like.  With important decisions being made and critical planning underway, the post-election process is slowly revealing what kind of President Donald Trump might be.

If I could get one wish, it would be that Mr. Trump decide to stop using Twitter.

trump-the-hashI recognize this probably is a forlorn hope.  In many ways, Trump’s candidacy was driven by social media, and his tweets were a big part of the strategy.  Through his Twitter account, Trump had a forum for outlandish comments and was able to keep his name in the news.  His tweets provided him with lots of free air time, and his inclination, as President, likely will be to keep doing what worked well during the campaign.

And yet, the qualities we are looking for in a President are different from those that can drive a presidential campaign.  Dashing off a tweet seems fundamentally inconsistent with the considered judgment that we hope the occupants of the Oval Office will bring to the position.  (I recognize that President Obama has and uses a Twitter account, which I think is unfortunate, too, but without doing an exhaustive analysis I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that his tweets haven’t been quite as controversial as Trump’s.)

Consider one of the President-elects most recent tweets, which asserts that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”   Of course, no evidence is cited (Twitter isn’t exactly known for that) but the claim that there were millions of illegal votes seems incredibly reckless — as well as bizarre, since Trump won the election and you would think the prevailing candidate wouldn’t want to cast any doubt on the results in any event.  It’s the kind of charge that might work for a candidate looking for some free media coverage, but it just isn’t suited to the President-elect.  Presidents don’t need to gin up controversy to get their names in the news.

Many Americans are fair and open-minded people; even if they didn’t vote for Trump, they will be willing to give him a chance to show how he will perform as President.  I think they are looking to see whether Mr. Trump shows the reflection and thoughtfulness that are a key part of what we think of as “acting presidential.”  Tweets just don’t fit into the presidential job description.


My Personal Debate-Free Zone

I know the second Republican “debate” is tonight, but I’m not watching it.  Frankly, it just seems like too much of a freak show, or like I’m slowing down to rubberneck at some accident on the highway.  I feel sorry for most of the candidates, too.

This is all because of Donald Trump.  Just watching him kind of embarrasses me.  It’s as if he will say anything, or change any position, for an applause line.  He doesn’t seem to do his homework, either.

Sorry, but I think the job of running our country is a lot more serious than that, and requires more thought than it takes to fire off a late night Tweet.  I don’t want a President who “wings it.”  I want the President — whoever he or she may be — to make good decisions, not provide entertainment.

So I’m not going to watch the debate tonight.  I’ll read the news accounts, and pay attention to what the non-Trump candidates have to say — to the extent that the press even reports that information amidst all the Trump histrionics.  And in the meantime, I’ll be grateful that the real debating and real voting isn’t for a few months yet.  With luck, by then the Trump balloon will have finally popped, and we can start paying attention again.

Presidential Acting And Acting Presidential

In an interview broadcast today President Obama said that he talks to experts about the Gulf Oil spill because they can help him decide “whose ass to kick.” Some people have reacted negatively to the President’s use of the word “ass”; others have wondered why the President apparently needs experts to direct him on whose ass should be kicked; still others are applauding a comment that they view as an appropriate responses to a disaster of catastrophic proportions.

I don’t think our President should cuss like a sailor, but I don’t mind a well-chosen epithet that arises naturally in appropriate circumstances.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Harry Truman talked about “kicking some ass” once or twice when he was President, and if he did I bet his comment had a real impact on the immediate listeners.  My reaction to President Obama’s statement, however, was that it seemed, well, scripted.   News articles indicate that the President’s supporters have been urging him to show more anger and emotion, and the comment about “ass to kick” seemed like a carefully considered response to that criticism as opposed to a genuine, spontaneous reflection of true anger.

Trial lawyers know better than to try to make witnesses act in ways that are fundamentally contrary to their nature.  Juries may not particularly like a person who comes across as cold, or as a hothead, but they really hate witnesses who seem totally coached and inauthentic.  Most people can sense when someone is acting.  The look in the eyes doesn’t match the words, or the inflection and the gestures are out of sync.  I got that sense when I saw the clip of President Obama’s comments today.  I hope I am wrong about that reaction, because we don’t need a President who worries about tailoring his actions and reactions to satisfy the instructions of his advisers rather than worrying about the huge real-world problems he needs to address.