A major premise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was that as a successful businessman, he would be “greedy” on behalf of America. But instead, his CEO mindset has generated one of the least productive first 100 days of a presidency in modern American history.
On his march to the White House, Trump frequently touted his prowess as a formidable dealmaker and efficient businessman as what was needed to turn around a stagnating nation. "Under budget and ahead of schedule. So important. We don't hear those words so often, but you will," Trump pledged at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new hotel in Washington in October. "Today is a metaphor for what we can accomplish for this country." His voters were thrilled by the idea.
Trump swiftly made efforts to deliver on his promise of running the country as a corporation upon seizing the presidency. He stacked his administration and Cabinet with billionaire executives and bankers who had no experience in government but whose riches were presumed to be evidence of their ability to achieve results. His two most prominent advisers, chief strategist Steve Bannon and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, knew nothing of Washington but had formerly held leadership positions in real estate and media.
In March, the White House opened up an Office of American Innovation — headed by Kushner — which was tasked with, among other things, solving the opioid crisis and hatching ideas for Trump’s infrastructure ambitions. "The government should be run like a great American company," Kushner said as it opened. “Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.” Although many are skeptical this office of innovation will actually do anything.
Furthermore, Trump’s style of leadership has resembled that of a willful CEO. His agenda to reshape the country by acting unilaterally as often as possible, while keeping the government abnormally lean, is in line with how a chief executive at a company might try to turn around an ailing company.
But Trump’s worldview as moneymaker hasn’t injected American political life with new energy. Instead, his tenure has been marked by historic levels of inefficiency and incompetence: There’s been zero progress on major legislation, his most pivotal executive orders have been halted by the courts, many agencies lack the staff to implement agendas, and his approval ratings are historically low.
Trump’s ineffectiveness has helped puncture a glib myth that dates back to the early 20th century on how market-tested business skills can solve the eternal plague of government inefficiency. Trump was elected to transform the establishment, but his disregard for how the game is played has ensured that, in many respects, it’s been left untouched.
The limitations of a CEO presidency
As the head of a business empire and a former executive producer for a successful television show, Trump is used to telling people what to do and getting what he wants. As a businessman with many failed ventures, he of course doesn’t always achieve the outcomes he desires, but the model of leadership and organizational behavior he’s most familiar with involves issuing directives and standing at the top of a hierarchy where he can fire people if they don’t cooperate with him. He gets to call the shots, and the only thing that matters at the end of the day is improving the bottom line.
Trump looks at the presidency through a similar lens. Instead of pursuing the passage of laws, he’s focused most of his energy on issuing dozens of executive orders, which his administration had been eager to brandish as an indication his decisiveness and effectiveness. He’s relished the opportunity to take a type of action that allows him to circumvent the input of others. So much so, in fact, that he forgets that even his unilateral powers can be checked.
Consider his ill-fated attempts to ban nationals from several Muslim-majority countries from being able to travel to the US. The first one in January was slapped together hastily, wasn’t reviewed by the usual legal experts, and was struck down by the courts. The second one, while more carefully pieced together, was also blocked.
For a president to run up so hard against the judiciary branch with executive orders is pretty extraordinary. As William Howell, a presidential scholar at the University of Chicago, told me, “Typically when the courts do rule on executive orders, they rule in favor of the president — on average it’s about 80, 85 percent of the time.”
“But most of the time they don’t rule at all,” he added.
That’s because president’s executive orders aren’t usually challenged legally, and when they are, courts will usually try to avoid ruling on them. Trump’s brazen style and disregard for legal tradition managed to create a situation where judges were actually eager to step in and offer a corrective to the president’s bid for power. “Presidents usually calibrate themselves and don’t start flinging orders like a fast-food chef,” Howell observed.
Without legal and political knowhow, Trump’s predisposition to simply issue orders ran up against a wall very quickly.
Lawmaking can’t be done through commands
The biggest legislative setback of Trump’s presidency so far — the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare — spoke volumes about how a tough, deadline-oriented executive is out of his element in Washington. Just a few weeks into office, Trump decided to set a harsh time limit on voting to replace the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that it was eminently clear House Republicans did not have the votes.
Trump was restless and expected everyone to get their act together in time. When House members protested, they were given threatening dictates.
"Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill,” Bannon reportedly told members of the House Freedom Caucus days before the vote.
“You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn't listen to him, either," one member replied.
They also didn’t listen to Trump. They effectively torpedoed the bill, and Trump suffered a humiliating loss about a month into his presidency. He battered the House Freedom Caucus on Twitter, but he probably would’ve preferred to fire them if he could have.
What Trump didn’t understand in that situation — and clearly has not absorbed yet regarding any other piece of legislation — is that passing big laws is a grueling process that requires building unity and consensus among people with divergent interests and conflicting ideological orientations. Rounding people up to pass a law isn’t about telling those people they have to execute on a boss’s order — it’s persuading them that it’s in their interest to do so.
It’s obvious that Trump didn’t understand how to do that on a fundamental level. In the days leading up to the vote, he avoided discussing policy details of the replacement bill with the House Freedom Caucus and told them to "forget about the little shit." But to them, it wasn’t little — those details, like the Title I regulations on insurers that they wanted to gut, are precisely what mattered.
It’s difficult to understand that if you’re not used to understanding how principles can interfere with productivity — or shape what productivity actually means. It’s also difficult to understand if you’re not used to having others to sign off on what you want. It’s a process that defies neat deadlines, and it requires uncommon patience.
It’s not just Trump that operates on a different negotiation wavelength than does Washington. His administration is packed with financiers whose specific experience with handling distressed debt has made them value highly aggressive negotiation tactics that deviate from how policymaking often works. As Gillian Tett notes at the Financial Times, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have been trained by their experience to be uniquely hard-charging and make risky bets:
Financiers who build their careers by handling distressed assets are trained to make high-risk, high-reward trades, particularly if they can control downside risk. They scorn bureaucratic process and focus on results. They will pivot and cut their losses if a deal goes sour. They embrace brinkmanship and will often be ultra-aggressive at the start of a bid, but later retreat to cut a deal. Above all, distressed-debt players are opportunistic, not ideological: they are constantly hunting for value in assets and trades that are mispriced or widely scorned.
Their penchant for rapid escalation and leaning into uncertainty works well in the distressed-debt trading world, but it’s not a good way to forge laws.
Trump’s logic on staffing efficiency is backward
Trump has proposed only 50 nominations for the top 553 positions of the executive branch, which means 90 percent of senior positions have not yet received nominees. But he doesn’t believe that’s a crisis — he thinks it’s a virtue.
“A lot of those jobs I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump told Fox News in February. “I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”
He echoed that sentiment again this week when he told the Washington Examiner that he still had no plans to fill many of the vacancies at all. "We don't need so many people coming to work,” he said. He also pointed out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly the CEO of Exxon Mobil, was also fond of keeping a trim staff. “He likes to do things himself, and he likes to take meetings himself, he doesn't necessarily need the kind of numbers that you're talking about."
That kind of statement comports with modern conservative skepticism of big government. But Trump doesn’t have a history of being ideologically opposed to big government, and he didn’t run as a small-government conservative. Instead, it’s most useful to think of his disinterest in staffing up the government as an operational stance. He simply thinks that consolidating power among a smaller circle that he trusts and having fewer people administer policies is an optimal way to run things.
Trump is perplexed by why so many people need to be appointed to government. But it’s quite likely he doesn’t appreciate the sheer scope and complexity of the government. In 2014, the government had revenues of over $3 trillion — more than the revenues of the 16 largest Fortune 500 companies at the time put together. And if you include uniformed military personnel, it had roughly 4.2 million employees — the combined workforce of the country’s six largest corporations. There’s just no private sector analogue for sheer number of things the government does and the amount of people it employs to do it.
Trump’s intuition is that having fewer senior administrators cuts out middlemen who dilute messages from the top. But the reality is that the emptiness of the administration’s upper echelons actually makes it harder for Trump to enact his agenda and change the way Washington works.
Consider for example, the US trade representative’s report to Congress published in March. The report was a schizophrenic document, on one hand brazenly announcing that the US would defy World Trade Organization rulings when it wished to, but simultaneously affirming plenty of free trade traditions. As trade expert Todd Tucker of the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute pointed out, the report was “divided between seven pages of Trumpist rhetoric and more than 300 pages of celebration of the older approach.”
What explains the jarring disconnect? It’s likely because it was primarily put together by bureaucrats whose natural inclination is to embrace old free trade frameworks rather than the new president’s positions. If Trump were doing more to staff up on senior positions, that doesn’t mean there would be total harmony over at the US trade representative’s office, but it would help people in the office get on the same page.
“The real power of implementation in the federal government is at the assistant secretary level. And they simply don’t have any,” Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings scholar and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, told Vox during an interview in March.
Governing is more complicated than business
Americans often look at Washington and see nothing they like. The gridlock and the partisan rancor and the unresponsiveness of the government fill countless citizens with despair. And in this context, it makes sense that many believe the business leaders they respect so much might just have the solutions.
But running a country will always be different from — and far more complicated than — running a business. The government isn’t simply pursuing profit as efficiently as possible for shareholders. It’s providing countless services for the public, and its stakeholders include every citizen in the country — not to mention the international community.
Government leadership will always be enriched by the advent of new ideas, some of which will come from the private sector. But there’s no replacement for understanding historical context, institutional knowhow, or relationship building. Sometimes getting things done just has to be slow and messy.