The Age of Incompetence

by J. Bradford DeLong J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. 27.12.2016

BERKELEY – On January 20, 2017, US President-elect Donald Trump will take office having received almost three million fewer votes than his opponent; and he will work with a Republican Senate majority whose members won 13 million fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. Only the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, has any claim to represent a numerical majority of the 55% of Americans who voted on Election Day 2016.

Trump will also begin his presidency with an approval rating below 50%. This is unprecedented – or “unpresidented,” as one of his semi-literate tweets put it (before he deleted it) – in the history of such ratings. The government of the world’s oldest democracy is, in fact, not democratic. Also unprecedented is the fact that so few members of the president-elect’s own party, and none of the Democratic opposition, consider him to be qualified for the duties of the presidency, apart from serving as Cheerleader-in-Chief.

Of course, the Trump phenomenon has been gestating for a long period. With the honorable exception of George H.W. Bush, who had the requisite knowledge, intelligence, temperament, and values to serve, the last time a fully qualified Republican was inaugurated was in 1957. No one denies that Richard Nixon had the knowledge and intelligence to be president; but most people will admit that his temperament and values left something to be desired.

Similarly, most people thought that Ronald Reagan lacked the requisite knowledge and intelligence for the office. According to the journalist Peter Jenkins, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said of Reagan, “Poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.” And the qualifications that Reagan did have on Inauguration Day eroded over time, after he was wounded in a failed assassination attempt 69 days into his presidency, and, later, when he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Still, Reagan’s temperament and values (generally speaking) were well suited to the presidency. He fully understood that being the star did not mean that he was the boss. Both as a Hollywood actor and as a US president, Reagan had smart, dedicated, and trained professionals writing his lines and directing his moves. He knew that his job was to be on screen, and not to interfere with the people behind the camera and in the post-production editing room, who were responsible for the finished product.

This is what most observers expected to see when George W. Bush took office in 2001: a folksy cheerleader who would follow the lead of the wise advisers he had inherited from his father. But the younger Bush came to think of himself not just as the star, but as “the decider,” too. And while Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been savvy policymakers back in the 1970s, they had become rather erratic by the early 2000s. For whatever reason, Bush bonded with the two, which sealed his fate. He has not attended any Republican National Conventions since leaving office, and he may wish that he had he never sent James Baker to Florida in November 2000 to secure his victory over Al Gore.

Trump clearly has not taken any lessons from the second Bush presidency. He knows that he is the star, but he also wrongly believes that he has the knowledge and intelligence to be the boss. He seems unaware that his campaign is over, that he could fail catastrophically and permanently in his new role, and that it is in his own interest to ensure that his proposals are sound, not just as slogans, but as actual policies that will keep the US safe and create prosperity.

So, what should the millions of Americans who now fear for the future do? First, we can work at the state level to try to neutralize any Trump policy initiatives that are flawed or infeasible. Democrats and principled Republicans in state legislatures need to work together to keep tax revenues flowing and to fund the many spending programs that are in the American interest, regardless of what is happening in Washington, DC. And they should promise each other that, regardless of who comes to power in 2021, they will not hold each other liable for acting as disruptors today.

At the national level, we should constantly remind Senate Republicans that they speak for 13 million fewer voters than the Democrats do. And we should remind Paul Ryan that he made a mistake by going along with the Bush administration’s discredited economic and foreign-policy initiatives between 2001 and 2008, and that it is a disservice to the country to show unconditional partisan support for an administration that is so obviously unfit.

And, if all else fails, we should remember that standing up to an unpopular president who received almost three million fewer votes than his opponent is not just the right thing to do; it will also make for great reality TV.


J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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