Obama Used the Presidency; So Should Trump

The front page of the Washington Post on Wednesday showed a charming picture of a gaggle of school kids on a White House tour excited by a surprise appearance by President Trump. The Post is overtly hostile to Trump, but editors find it hard to resist good photos of happy, bright-eyed children. There is an important lesson for Trump and his staff in that photo, which is to maximize use of his presidential status. This is something Trump is effective at doing when he decides on it. He should decide on it more often.

This is something that Barack Obama did effectively, which helped insulate him from otherwise justifiable personal and political attack. Obama came into office more lacking in actual gravitas than any previous occupant of the White House, a man of few real accomplishments or obvious talents, except for self-promotion.  To the extent that Obama had successes they were in promoting ideas and agendas that were anti-American in the normal sense of the term. He entered office devoid of any obvious affection for the country he led, as evidenced by his notorious international tour begging forgiveness for his own country’s myriad transgressions, as he saw things.

Yet none of this in any way deterred Obama from making full use of his position as American head of state to burnish and enhance his image. Obama and his handlers used the office of the presidency to mitigate not only Obama’s politics but his personal flaws -- notably his aloofness and narcissism. Indeed, in some sense they managed to turn the later traits into political assets. Obama seemed to revel in in formal ceremony, the former Choom Gang pothead doing his level best to appear sober, serious, and regal. Mostly he succeeded, helped of course by his historic status as the country’s first black president.

The bottom line is that Obama won reelection despite weak economy, a failing health care system, and rising racial and social tensions, largely because he was effective at pretending to be presidential. He managed to turn the slaying of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs into a personal accomplishment and an argument for reelection, almost solely on the premise that he was commander-in-chief at the time.

Trump seems more diffident about using the presidency in this way, which in some respects is a good thing. However, given the forces arrayed against him in the media, the Democrat caucus, the federal bureaucracy and the judiciary, he needs to employ every asset to prevail. So far, he has not made full use of his presidential status, and arguably does “unpresidential” things that allow his critics to attack him in ways that they otherwise could not.   

Trump’s use of his Twitter account is a mistake in this regard. Some rationalize away his habit as strategy, using tweets to keep his opponents off balance, raising issues to annoy his enemies or send them down blind alleys. But this confuses means with objectives. If Trump wants to unhinge his opponents, send them on wild goose chases or whatever, he has plenty of means short of 4 a.m. tweets to do so. Twitter is by its very nature an unserious means of communication. That’s a large reason why it is so popular. Trump’s use of it reasonably opens him to charges that he is not serious and acting emotionally, whether true or not.

Using Twitter might be somewhat advantageous if it really helped humanize Trump or seemed to give him the common touch. But few people on his massive Twitter feed believe that that’s going to get them an invite to Mar-a-Lago, or that Trump is anything like one of the guys. On the other hand, every military officer learns at some point that familiarity breeds contempt. Getting a Tweet from the president doesn’t make you his buddy, but may well lower his stature in the minds of many, even unconsciously. So for Trump it is likely the worst of both worlds.

When Trump wants to act presidential he is good at it. His Congressional address a couple of weeks ago a case in point. Trump’s approval ratings improved after that speech, in which Trump not only spoke presidentially, but looked the part too, giving up his baggy suit and too long red tie for a sharper image. That might seem petty, but Trump knows about image and television and he was smart to do it. The result was that the Democrats looked small, and the mainstream media was left to grudgingly acknowledge a Trump victory or gnash their teeth.

Trump’s tweets gave them a reprieve. It doesn’t matter right now whether the allegations of the tweets, that Obama spied on Trump’s reelection campaign, are true. For much of the media and the country, the tweets are more important than the allegations they contain. To the extent there is an argument over the substance of the tweets it is not over whether the allegations are true, but whether they are plausible.

The person in the best position to find out is Trump. He’s the chief executive, so the people who would have spied on his presidential campaign now work for him. By tweeting the allegation he acted like the outsider he was, rather than the president he is. The president needs to bang some heads together and get to the bottom of things.

Yes, by implication Trump’s Twitter attack on Obama underscored unseriousness of the left’s allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But Trump could have done the same thing without using Twitter. Now we are stuck to a welter of confusing allegations, counterallegations, no facts, and no person in authority settle the matter.

Trump can have a successful presidency if he is able to pass through Congress his agendas on tax reform, deregulation, military spending and homeland security. The Democrats can’t stop him unless Republicans waver. Trump needs to act presidential to prevent that from happening. When a Republican senator sees the Washington Post every day unrelievedly bashing the president over things avoidable, like sending out tweets, it weakens resolve. When that same senator sees a picture of smiling children greeting their president, it is bound to have the opposite effect. If there is one thing Trump should do in imitation of Obama, it is to use his presidential status to full advantage, which he has yet to do. 

The front page of the Washington Post on Wednesday showed a charming picture of a gaggle of school kids on a White House tour excited by a surprise appearance by President Trump. The Post is overtly hostile to Trump, but editors find it hard to resist good photos of happy, bright-eyed children. There is an important lesson for Trump and his staff in that photo, which is to maximize use of his presidential status. This is something Trump is effective at doing when he decides on it. He should decide on it more often.

This is something that Barack Obama did effectively, which helped insulate him from otherwise justifiable personal and political attack. Obama came into office more lacking in actual gravitas than any previous occupant of the White House, a man of few real accomplishments or obvious talents, except for self-promotion.  To the extent that Obama had successes they were in promoting ideas and agendas that were anti-American in the normal sense of the term. He entered office devoid of any obvious affection for the country he led, as evidenced by his notorious international tour begging forgiveness for his own country’s myriad transgressions, as he saw things.

Yet none of this in any way deterred Obama from making full use of his position as American head of state to burnish and enhance his image. Obama and his handlers used the office of the presidency to mitigate not only Obama’s politics but his personal flaws -- notably his aloofness and narcissism. Indeed, in some sense they managed to turn the later traits into political assets. Obama seemed to revel in in formal ceremony, the former Choom Gang pothead doing his level best to appear sober, serious, and regal. Mostly he succeeded, helped of course by his historic status as the country’s first black president.

The bottom line is that Obama won reelection despite weak economy, a failing health care system, and rising racial and social tensions, largely because he was effective at pretending to be presidential. He managed to turn the slaying of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs into a personal accomplishment and an argument for reelection, almost solely on the premise that he was commander-in-chief at the time.

Trump seems more diffident about using the presidency in this way, which in some respects is a good thing. However, given the forces arrayed against him in the media, the Democrat caucus, the federal bureaucracy and the judiciary, he needs to employ every asset to prevail. So far, he has not made full use of his presidential status, and arguably does “unpresidential” things that allow his critics to attack him in ways that they otherwise could not.   

Trump’s use of his Twitter account is a mistake in this regard. Some rationalize away his habit as strategy, using tweets to keep his opponents off balance, raising issues to annoy his enemies or send them down blind alleys. But this confuses means with objectives. If Trump wants to unhinge his opponents, send them on wild goose chases or whatever, he has plenty of means short of 4 a.m. tweets to do so. Twitter is by its very nature an unserious means of communication. That’s a large reason why it is so popular. Trump’s use of it reasonably opens him to charges that he is not serious and acting emotionally, whether true or not.

Using Twitter might be somewhat advantageous if it really helped humanize Trump or seemed to give him the common touch. But few people on his massive Twitter feed believe that that’s going to get them an invite to Mar-a-Lago, or that Trump is anything like one of the guys. On the other hand, every military officer learns at some point that familiarity breeds contempt. Getting a Tweet from the president doesn’t make you his buddy, but may well lower his stature in the minds of many, even unconsciously. So for Trump it is likely the worst of both worlds.

When Trump wants to act presidential he is good at it. His Congressional address a couple of weeks ago a case in point. Trump’s approval ratings improved after that speech, in which Trump not only spoke presidentially, but looked the part too, giving up his baggy suit and too long red tie for a sharper image. That might seem petty, but Trump knows about image and television and he was smart to do it. The result was that the Democrats looked small, and the mainstream media was left to grudgingly acknowledge a Trump victory or gnash their teeth.

Trump’s tweets gave them a reprieve. It doesn’t matter right now whether the allegations of the tweets, that Obama spied on Trump’s reelection campaign, are true. For much of the media and the country, the tweets are more important than the allegations they contain. To the extent there is an argument over the substance of the tweets it is not over whether the allegations are true, but whether they are plausible.

The person in the best position to find out is Trump. He’s the chief executive, so the people who would have spied on his presidential campaign now work for him. By tweeting the allegation he acted like the outsider he was, rather than the president he is. The president needs to bang some heads together and get to the bottom of things.

Yes, by implication Trump’s Twitter attack on Obama underscored unseriousness of the left’s allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But Trump could have done the same thing without using Twitter. Now we are stuck to a welter of confusing allegations, counterallegations, no facts, and no person in authority settle the matter.

Trump can have a successful presidency if he is able to pass through Congress his agendas on tax reform, deregulation, military spending and homeland security. The Democrats can’t stop him unless Republicans waver. Trump needs to act presidential to prevent that from happening. When a Republican senator sees the Washington Post every day unrelievedly bashing the president over things avoidable, like sending out tweets, it weakens resolve. When that same senator sees a picture of smiling children greeting their president, it is bound to have the opposite effect. If there is one thing Trump should do in imitation of Obama, it is to use his presidential status to full advantage, which he has yet to do.