Hillary Clinton has an extensive record of public service and surrounded herself with policy experts on the campaign trail. Trump is just the opposite, with no record of government service and little interest in learning about the details of public policy.
A lot of wonks considered that to be a sign that Trump wasn’t fit for the job. But voters weren’t convinced. Many of them believed that what insiders are pleased to describe as “policy experts” are often just another self-serving group, promoting their own interests — or the interests of powerful groups like banks or trial lawyers — at the expense of ordinary Americans.
The Trump presidency is going to provide an important test of this disagreement. After eight years of the hyper-technocratic Obama presidency, we’re about to get an administration where expertise is taken a lot less seriously, while personal loyalty to Donald Trump will be seen as much more important.
This could result in crippling dysfunction across a range of government services, vindicating elites’ views on the importance of expertise. Or the government might operate better than the experts expected, suggesting that technocratic expertise might not be as important as people thought.
Donald Trump doesn’t have much respect for experts
The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were hardly perfect, but broadly speaking both presidents worked hard to appoint officials who were well qualified for their jobs. George W. Bush drew heavily from the administrations of Gerald Ford and his father. Barack Obama tapped a lot of Clinton administration veterans. And both recruited heavily from the nation’s economics departments and law schools to staff their administrations.
In contrast, Trump places so little emphasis on policy expertise that he let his campaign’s policy shop wither on the vine.
Since April, policy experts at an office in Alexandria, Virginia, had been drafting policy proposals for the Trump campaign. But by August, most of them had resigned. As the Washington Post put it, “Trump has never acknowledged the policy shop based in Washington that has been doing huge amounts of grunt work for months without recognition or compensation.”
As a result, President-elect Trump is desperately short both on specific policy ideas and on policy experts to help him run his administration. According to the Wall Street Journal, at last Thursday’s meeting “Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Trump seemed surprised by the scope.” Trump’s aides were reportedly “unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.”
We don’t know exactly how Trump will staff his administration. It’s possible he’ll ultimately rely on well-connected subordinates like Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Republican National Committee chair (now Trump Chief of Staff) Reince Priebus to recruit traditional GOP hands to key positions.
But the choice to name Steve Bannon, who previously ran the fringe conservative site Breitbart.com as a senior adviser — as well as his decision to appoint three of his own adult children and one son-in-law to his transition team — suggests that Trump is likely to prioritize personal loyalty to Trump over conventional policy expertise.
Cronyism can have an upside
This might seem like an obvious mistake — not only for the country but for Trump’s personal reelection chances. But it’s also possible that Trump’s disdain for policy experts could have a political upside.
One way to see this is to think back to the start of Barack Obama’s election in 2009. Obama came into office in the midst of a massive recession, and one of his first steps upon taking office was to promote a big stimulus bill to boost the economy.
Yet after that initial surge of spending, Obama moved on to other issues, like overhauling the health care system and financial regulations. He didn’t seriously try to get any more stimulus spending, and he didn’t make any real efforts to get the Federal Reserve to use its money-printing power to boost the economy.
To a large extent, this reflected disagreement among economists about whether it was even possible for more aggressive policies to boost the economy. Some thought that more aggressive Fed actions would just produce more inflation. Others thought that there was room for the Fed to boost the economy further by keeping interest rates low.
But one thing that should have been crystal clear is that it was in Democrats’ political interest for the Fed to pursue easy money policies in the run-up to the 2012 and then the 2016 elections. That might have generated dangerous levels of inflation in the long run, but in the short run it would have boosted the economy and improved Democrats’ political fortunes.
But Obama was so taken with the idea of hiring credentialed, consensus-oriented experts that he never even tried to push macroeconomic policies that would benefit Obama personally. And after eight years of slow growth and very low inflation, there’s reason to think that might have been a mistake — not just for Democrats’ political fortunes, but for the economy as a whole. If Obama had been more opportunistic, we might have a healthier economy today without dangerous levels of inflation.
A similar point may apply in other areas of policymaking. Policy experts try to think about the big picture, crafting policies that will benefit everyone in the long run. Political hacks think about the short-term, looking for policies — like massive, debt-financed spending on infrastructure projects — that will boost the incumbent’s chances of reelection. And political hacks are often successful at getting their guy reelected, whether or not their policies generate long-term benefits for the country as a whole.
And it’s even possible that the experts’ theories are wrong — that the long-term consequences of opportunistic policies won’t be as dire as the experts predict. If so, then a certain amount of political opportunism can actually be good for the country, keeping focus on policies with tangible, short-term benefits. Maybe Trump will appoint cronies to run the Fed and they’ll discover that there really is a lot of room for low interest rates to boost the economy without sparking high inflation.
Expertise is important for keeping the government working well
So there may be some cases where excessive reliance on expert opinion can be detrimental to a president’s reelection chances — and possibly even the nation’s economy. But there are a lot of other cases where failure to take expertise seriously can just lead to disaster.
A new president takes office with a list of major goals he wants to accomplish. Barack Obama, for example, wanted to overhaul the health care system, reform financial regulations, and tackle climate change. Before him, George W. Bush wanted to cut taxes and reform education.
But often presidents are forced to divert their attention to issues that crop up unexpectedly. George W. Bush spent the final months of 2001 responding to the September 11 terrorist attack and the fall of 2005 dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Obama had to cope with the BP oil spill, the Veterans Administration scandal, the Snowden revelations, the Ebola crisis, and so forth.
And when these crises happen, presidents rely on the team that’s already in place to help them deal with them. The government has an agency in charge of almost any conceivable problem; these folks are called into the Oval Office to get the president up to speed, work with him to develop a strategy, and then put the strategy into action.
For example, President Obama probably didn’t expect to be worrying about leaking oil wells when he took office. But in 2010, a BP oil well started leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, and Obama had to make quick decisions about how to deal with the problem. He drew on government experts, including US Energy Secretary (and Nobel prize winner) Steven Chu, to help him evaluate various options including detonating a nuclear bomb to seal the leak.
When governments screw up, it is often the result of appointing people who weren’t well-qualified for key roles. Michael Brown led the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005. George W. Bush declared that he was doing a “heck of a job” in managing the disaster relief effort, a phrase that became famous days later when Bush fired Brown for mismanaging the project.
Critics faulted Bush for choosing Brown in the first place, given that he had no real experience in disaster relief before he became FEMA’s general counsel in 2001. (He became administrator of FEMA two years later.) Previously, Brown had served for nine years as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.
The Obama administration too has faced headaches due to a lack of relevant expertise. The disastrous launch of Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov website and the hacking of servers belonging to the Office of Personnel Management — which exposed personal data on millions of US government employees — both reflected a shortage of IT expertise in the executive branch, for example.
A big danger for Donald Trump, then, is that over the next four years he’s going to have a lot more “heck of a job” incidents in obscure but important corners of the federal government. People may be surprised by the number of these incidents because the past few presidents have generally chosen competent people for these jobs, creating the impression that these jobs don’t matter very much. But once Trump puts someone unqualified in charge, we might suddenly realize how important a lot of these jobs are.