Early Returns

A Reputation in Tatters

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

I'll leave the foreign-policy analysis of the U.S.-North Korea showdown to the specialists -- here's Henry Farrell at the Monkey Cage -- and stick to the presidency.

A president's professional reputation, as Richard Neustadt explained, isn't just "good" or "bad" at any particular time. Donald Trump's is terrible right now, but it's also more subtle than that: "The individuals who share in governing ... base their expectations on what they can see of [the president]. And they are watching all the time." That is, people whose jobs depend in part on the president's actions -- members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, governors, rank-and-file bureaucrats, party and interest-group leaders, and more are constantly assessing him. Does he carry out his threats? Do his enemies suffer? Do his friends prosper? Is his word good? What are his habits, his biases, his repeated mistakes, his negotiating style? Who does he listen to? Does he respect differences of opinion and interest? Can he be manipulated -- and if so, how, and by whom?

Sometimes a president's reputation can be subtle indeed -- perhaps he's careful and deliberative in domestic affairs but impulsive in foreign relations; perhaps he's a canny negotiator with Congress but easy to roll within the administration, or any other combination of observed behaviors. Of course, as Neustadt says, these assessments aren't necessarily "correct" in any fundamental way. They're just the combined wisdom of those who must, for professional success and even survival, pay a whole lot of attention to what the president does. 

So here we go again. We already know that Trump's reputation is awful. Just last week, Trump and his administration warned the Senate not to leave town without voting on a health-care bill, a threat the Senate ignored, after which Trump too acted as if he had never said anything. Now we see him blustering again, hurling threats against North Korea that most likely are about as well-thought-out and serious as last week's warnings. 

As I said, I'll leave the foreign-policy consequences to others. But the domestic consequences? Every time Trump blusters a meaningless threat, it makes the next threat that much more meaningless. And good presidents really do need to make threats from time to time and have at least some possibility that people will believe them.

What's astonishing about Trump so far is just how across-the-board bad his professional reputation appears to be. It's possible that some in Washington are still afraid of becoming a target of his Twitter ire, although I suspect at this point people have realized that he's destroyed no one that way while clearly doing plenty of damage to himself. It seems quite unlikely his threats to North Korea are going to improve that situation.

1. Lynn Vavreck on white identity and Trump support.

2. Paul von Hippel at the Monkey Cage on voter fraud myths and the 1960 election

3. Amy Fried on lobbying Susan Collins

4. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on what happens after the unthinkable happens in U.S. politics. 

5. Lee Drutman on a new survey of senior congressional staff that demonstrates just how big a problem congressional capacity has become. Hey, members of Congress: Spend more money on Congress! 

6. Casey Burgat on new research that shows the surprising persistence of bipartisanship in (successful) legislating.

7. Megha Bhattacharya on disincentives for talented young people to work for members of Congress. I've wished for years that someone would do a study on what happens to the armies of young people who put in a few years as congressional staff before moving on to ... well, I don't know what they go on to. As far as I know, no one does, and no one knows whether they wind up more involved in civic affairs, or disillusioned, or whatever. I'm not so much interested in those who stay and have Washington careers, but those who wind up elsewhere (and, yes, I'm one of those former young congressional staffers. Seems that I retained an interest in politics). 

8. Matt Fuller reports on how badly the initial debt-limit conversations are going. I still think it gets done, but there's no guarantee. 

9. And Alyssa Rosenberg is worried that a reboot of "The West Wing" could be on its way (the TV show, that is, not another round of White House firings). 

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

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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