A chief executive sits here.

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What the President Does

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Turns out maybe Donald Trump doesn’t want to be president after all.

Oh, he wants to run for president. Almost certainly wants to win. Probably wants to be inaugurated. 

But doing the actual job? That’s something else. At least according to Paul Manafort, Trump’s strategist and campaign chairman, in an interview with HuffPost’s Howard Fineman:

The vice presidential pick will also be part of the process of proving he’s ready for the White House, Manafort said.

“He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He seems himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO.”

Not the CEO? As the Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum noted:

Yoni Appelbaum @YAppelbaum
The Constitution says, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President.” CEO is literally the job description. https://t.co/OJ7hjuagbZ
Twitter: Yoni Appelbaum on Twitter

Given Trump’s apparent lack of interest in public policy, at least beyond a few slogans intended to grab media attention and excite crowds at his rallies, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Trump really does intend to mostly delegate his office to others. 

The presidency is a full-time, hands-on job, and it only works with a master politician in the Oval Office, obsessively building up his or her ability to influence all those the president must work with: Congress, executive-branch departments and agencies, state governments, foreign powers, the president’s political party, interest groups, the media, and more.

Executive-branch agencies won’t do what the president wants without active management (indeed, it's hard even for engaged presidents to get them to). Even the White House staff, the only people in the system who work only for the president, can't be counted on. They, too, have mixed incentives. When presidents become disengaged, the results can be disastrous.

For presidents to be effective, there is no substitute for Max Weber’s “slow boring of hard boards.”

Of course, part of being president is learning what to delegate, and someone -- usually the president’s chief of staff -- winds up being quite powerful. But it’s a terrible idea to make the vice president an acting CEO, as we discovered in the George W. Bush administration. In the modern model for the job, dating back to Walter Mondale in the late 1970s, the vice president serves as an all-purpose sounding board and adviser to the president and coordinates special projects. His job is not to be president. 

It’s relatively easy for a president to fire a chief of staff who is out of control, meaning the president (or at least a president who is paying attention) always keeps the upper hand. But a constitutionally elected vice president is almost impossible to get rid of.  

Granted, Trump himself hasn’t said this is how he would run things. But it isn’t hard to see why some of us are less worried about Trump’s authoritarian instincts than we are about chaos and incompetence in the White House.   

  1. The Iran-contra scandal in Ronald Reagan's second term is an example. The U.S. sold weapons to Iran to ransom U.S. hostages in Lebanon and then illegally used the proceeds to finance Nicaraguan anti-Communist rebels. The causes of the scandal were complicated, but mostly it occurred because Reagan was failing to pay attention to what his own White House and National Security Council were up to. In part that was because chief of staff Donald Regan didn't tell him about it. And the president didn't ask. 

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To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net