USA Politics

Presidential persuasion: So far, the art eludes Trump

Patterns of thought

The irony is that the image Trump has long sold – the dealmaker, the negotiator, and the guy who gets everybody in the room to ‘yes’ – might be somebody America could really use at the moment.

President Trump speaks during a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans to discuss healthcare at the White House on July 19, 2017. From left are Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia, Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, and Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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One of the most important powers of the US presidency is its power to persuade. But after six months in office, President Trump is far from becoming America’s Persuader-in-Chief.

That’s one of the lessons – so far – of the Senate’s struggle to pass health-care legislation. Until this week Mr. Trump has been largely uninvolved in twisting arms and bending ears in an effort to win passage of the bill. He’s seemed uninterested in or unaware of its details, to the discouragement of some of the effort’s senatorial supporters.

In recent days Trump has thrown himself into lobbying for a health-care “win,” but his message has at times contradicted itself, while the bill teeters on the edge of extinction. He’s publicly tweaked some GOP lawmakers without appearing to acknowledge the cross-pressures they’re feeling from their particular constituencies. Oh, and he’s given The New York Times a long interview that’s producing major headlines, and major distraction.

The irony is that the image Trump has long sold – the dealmaker, the negotiator, and the guy who gets everybody in the room to “yes” – might be somebody America could really use at the moment. Past presidents, even recent ones, have been effective at the personal touches that bring bipartisan deals together. Some president could do that again, says one presidential expert.

“I think it is doable even in today’s polarized environment,” says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Lawmakers frustrated with Trump’s approach

To a certain extent, Trump never really became involved in the health-care effort until recently. Health care, as the president has famously admitted, is complicated. The details may be boring, but they matter.

In the House, many members thought Trump didn’t fully understand the bill that squeaked through the chamber. They didn’t appreciate him calling the legislation “mean” in a meeting with senators at the White House dealing with how their effort on the subject might unfold.

“I never felt that the president has been very engaged on the details of the health-care bill. I think that makes it harder for him to affect the outcome,” says Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group of Republicans, who voted against the health-care bill when it was in the House.

Trump was caught off guard earlier this week when Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah and Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas came out against the legislation, killing it in its current form.

As Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky struggled to find a way forward, Trump threw himself fully into the fray, inviting all GOP senators to the White House and insisting that they just lock themselves in a room and work out a deal between the conservatives and moderates who are blocking the bill, each for their own reasons.

Many in the caucus endorsed Trump’s engagement. It was “very forceful and just exactly what the chief executive needs to do if you’re going to get this bill passed,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa on Thursday in a brief interview as he rounded a corner and headed for lunch.

But some lawmakers felt Trump continued to just insist on the necessity of passing the bill as a personal win, without even acknowledging that some senators, such as Sen. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, are facing reelection in states where it is very unpopular.

His continued lack of understanding of the bill’s details is a problem – in speaking to senators, Trump wildly overestimated the projected effect of allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines, for instance.

Then there’s Trump’s New York Times interview, released Thursday, in which he harshly criticized his own attorney general and deputy attorney general and continued to rail against ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“I don’t even pay any attention to what is going on with the administration because I don’t care. They’re a distraction. The family is a distraction, the president is a distraction,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho said to Politico on Wednesday.

The bully pulpit

To some extent, Trump is thus ceding a big part of one of his important powers: persuasion.

Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, in his famous book “Presidential Power,” argued that the power to persuade is one of the chief executive’s greatest strengths. It is the bully pulpit, the ability to speak directly to lawmakers, the voters, the media, and foreign leaders.

In Trump’s case, so far that’s not working, says Barbara Perry of the Miller Center.

“At the six-month mark, I don’t see he even comprehends in the least his formal powers, as well as how to persuade,” she says.

With Congress, presidential persuasion can be a lengthy process where effort needs to be sustained.

Think of Lyndon B. Johnson, who worked the phones constantly, checking in with his allies on the Hill to see how the Civil Rights Act was progressing, then moving to woo such difficult-to-move lawmakers as Sen. Richard Russell, a conservative Democrat from Georgia and LBJ mentor, and Sen. Everett Dirksen, a prominent GOP moderate from Illinois.

Recent presidents have been good with the human touch, too, notes Professor Perry.

George W. Bush had Sen. Ted Kennedy and his family to the White House to see a newly released film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thirteen Days.” Sen. Kennedy responded with a note that thanked the president for inviting him, and added that he hoped to return for “bill signings.”

The two did work closely to advance the “No Child Left Behind” education reform act.

George H. W. Bush was similarly deft as president. Bill Clinton was, too. There’s no partisan reason that couldn’t happen again, says Perry.

And with the legislative balance in Congress so close, particularly in the Senate, even one vote changed could make a difference.

That said, with health care looking doomed, it is becoming less and less likely that the Trump administration will be able to get anything resembling a broad legislative agenda through Congress, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Presidential time runs down quickly, he points out. History shows that the first year is the best to pass big bills, and that the ability to persuade anyone declines quickly thereafter, as first mid-term elections, then presidential reelection bids, loom.

For Trump, the first-term window is closing.

“He’s starting to look more and more like we expect a second-term president to look ... lurching from crisis to crisis [with little legislative progress]” says Engel.