America’s quadrennial ordeal to pick a president is like a very long job interview. The political parties sort through the applicants and select the ones they think are best. Then, after months of tedious defamatory campaign commercials, we voters make the final selection.
If the process is complicated, the qualifications for the White House job are simple. They are spelled out in the Constitution: The president must be a natural born citizen, must have resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years and must be at least 35 years old. Unfortunately, nothing in the Constitution requires that a new president must know how to do the job.
In fact, the lack of government experience seemed to be a plus in last year’s election. Hillary Clinton’s entire career involved climbing the ladder of public service rung by rung until she became one of the most qualified people ever to seek the presidency. The cruel irony was that she arrived at the top just as the American people lost their patience for business as usual in Washington. They wanted a shakeup and a well-drained swamp.
So, a sufficient number of voters from strategic states picked a person who ignores political and social norms to speak his mind, even when his thoughts are impolitic, vulgar, rude, insulting and inflammatory. Rather than doing diplomatic pirouettes, Donald Trump called things as he saw them. It made him appear to be a truth-teller.
However, there is considerable risk in electing an apprentice to the presidency. The job involves enormous complexity and power. Putting a novice in the Oval Office is like picking someone with no experience to pilot a jetliner with lots of souls on board. For better or worse, every utterance from the leader of the world’s largest economy and most powerful military can send shudders through global markets and relationships. Worse, the job is highly weaponized, even giving the president the ability to destroy civilization with no obligation to discuss the decision with anyone else.
President Trump came to the job overestimating his abilities and, as he admitted, underestimating how hard it is. Now at the six-month mark, the Republican Party, the Congress and the American people must ask how long this master of the corporate world will be given to master the presidency.
An apprentice deserves some slack, but not very much if he happens to be the President of the United States. A new president must hit the ground running with few if any stumbles. He must do his homework before he gets there and every night thereafter. He must get a grip on the daunting number of issues with which he deals. He must give the world confidence that he studies well and deliberates wisely.
That is why, apart from all of the other issues dogging him, President Trump’s performance at the G-20 Summit last week was not only disappointing, but also disturbing. On the world stage, he looked like an actor who thought it unnecessary to read the script.
Two videos that went viral after the summit illustrate the impression Trump made and the impression he hoped we thought he made. In one, Australian broadcaster Chris Uhlmann delivers a scathing review that would seem biased and unnecessarily harsh if it did not ring so true.
The other video was tweeted by Trump himself. It is mostly a series of photos of the President and members of his family posing with world leaders at the Summit. There is no policy statement, uplifting speech, summit post mortem or reassurance about America’s solidarity with the other 19 nations. In fact, there is no voice-over at all. Instead, the soundtrack features a chorus singing with lots of pomp about making America great again, complete with a big finish and canned applause.
The video clearly is meant to impress us with the President’s influence on the world stage. Instead, it seems to confirm that Trump sought the presidency because it is the pinnacle of celebrity. As Uhlmann points out, the President squandered an opportunity to engage the other 19 in deliberations on North Korea’s missiles, or Europe’s refugee flood, or another of the difficult issues leaders are grappling with today. His much anticipated face-to-face with Putin apparently did not warrant all the fuss.
In light of Trump’s brags about having a huge IQ and all the good words, it is tempting to compare his appearance In Germany with other American presidents who went there to address global issues. There was John Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin wall to affirm America’s commitment to defend freedom from communism. A quarter-century later at the same wall, Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union to tear it down. Kennedy was assassinated five months after his speech in Berlin, but his commitment outlived him as America’s promise to the world. Two and a half years after Reagan’s challenge, the Berlin wall came down.
I invoke these examples not to make Trump look bad. Some of his predecessors set the bar very high. Besides, not every American president has been, or can be, one of the giants who makes history by changing its course. Nevertheless, we should set high standards for our presidents and expect our presidents to set high standards for themselves. We should expect them to live up to those standards from Day One and certainly by Month Six.
It must be unimaginably difficult to be an apprentice president and an effective president at the same time. But that is the challenge Trump chose. Now the question is, how long can we afford for him to learn his job?