This is the season of the rookies. In sports, countless newcomers seek notice and success, but only a few have the sort of impact like that of the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who hit two homers against the Blue Jays on May 2 and then added another homer and a double in an early June series at Rogers Centre. The 25-year-old is destined for rookie of the year. In contrast, the chief Yank, Donald Trump, is battling low approval ratings and a Justice Department investigation and has been unable to win the repeal of the Obamacare health plan he promised in his presidential campaign.
“The President’s new at this,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said earlier this month. “He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols.” Mr. Ryan was speaking about the customary relationships between the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the White House – a series of rules, written and unwritten, and folkways that entangled Mr. Trump after he fired FBI director James Comey.
No one doubts that Mr. Trump is unfamiliar with the totems and taboos of the American capital, customs and conventions that are jealously guarded and carefully cultivated by the denizens of the capital, who sometimes use their knowledge of these traditions to preserve their own prerogatives. But the question that is emerging in American political circles is a vital one: Is the President reckless – or is he merely a rookie?
The answer may not come for months, for as Mr. Trump gains experience he may also gain a measure of political wisdom, much the way the four previous presidents without political experience did. Three of them, however, were former generals – a military rank that often nurtures political skill – which is why Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, though presidents of modest achievement, were not naifs in office. The fourth, Herbert Hoover, was an accomplished Washington infighter after seven years as secretary of commerce and had deep experience feeding the hungry of Europe after the First World War, but is regarded as a presidential failure because he presided over the beginning of the Great Depression.
The list of Mr. Trump’s rookie errors may include a rush to repeal Obamacare without establishing sufficient political support for a specific plan; a miscalculation of the political danger of firing Mr. Comey; a lack of understanding of the political difference between impulsive statements on Twitter and carefully constructed statements of White House policy; an indifference to the sensitivities of American allies; and an unfamiliarity with the implications of his inclinations. The latter includes his skepticism of trade agreements, which prompted a swift intervention this spring from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that resulted in an abrupt Trump decision to put off withdrawing from NAFTA.
“There is always going to be a learning curve to being president,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College presidential scholar. “There is no training ground to be president.” But presidents with political experience – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all were state governors, accustomed to working with state legislatures, and Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama all served on Capitol Hill – build up a store of political expertise. Mr. Trump, though the fourth businessman-president in the last century, is more comfortable at construction sites than in the halls of Congress.
Even experienced politicians make rookie errors. Mr. Clinton served as chief executive of Arkansas for nearly a dozen years, was a tireless networker and a relentless student of politics, and yet his first several months were so troubled by distractions over aides’ babysitters and a controversy over gays in the military that critics declared him a failure at about this point in his presidency. Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan so surrounded themselves with cronies from their state-government days in Atlanta and Sacramento respectively that in their early days they were more provincial than presidential.
Mr. Carter never recovered from his failure to court Washington and his miscalculations over early water legislation. He swiftly was dismissed as a nonentity by his Republican rivals and considered an innocuous figure, even a cipher, by his own party members, including, to the President’s great distress and eventually his great peril, Speaker Tip O’Neill, who ran the House by paying little mind to the President’s entreaties. Mr. Clinton’s woes continued for months and only improved after he and his wife, Hillary Clinton, abandoned their drive to win a comprehensive overhaul of the American health-care system. Mr. Reagan was shot at the beginning of his third month in the White House but displayed remarkable political skills, winning major tax and budget cuts in his first year and then a landmark overhaul of the personal income tax in his fifth year.
“Early in a presidency is a good time to get things done, and it is absolutely crucial to build strong relationships with Congress,” said Burdett A. Loomis, a University of Kansas specialist on congressional affairs. “But Trump doesn’t have the patience or perhaps even the skill with those kinds of relationships, and as a result he is not in control of events.” Many political analysts believe the Mr. Trump’s inexperience is contributing to his difficulties early in his term.
One obstacle: Unlike previous presidents, who consulted with their predecessors in their early White House days, Mr. Trump lacks such a relationship with even one of his last four predecessors. He ran against Mr. Clinton’s wife, he demeaned both Presidents Bush and former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, and has described Mr. Obama in a tweet as a “Bad (or sick) guy!” Thus Mr. Trump is denied the kind of assistance that Mr. Trudeau received this spring when former prime minister Brian Mulroney agreed to help in fashioning a Canadian response to the U.S. President on NAFTA.
Mr. Trump is receiving a poor verdict from the American public. His current approval rate is at 37 per cent in the Gallup survey, the lowest of any modern president at this period – though Mr. Clinton, at 41 per cent, was close.
But presidents do learn – as Mr. Clinton’s 66-per-cent approval rating when he left office attests. John F. Kennedy may have had 14 years on Capitol Hill as a congressman and a senator, but he was so inexperienced as president that his own vice-president, the former Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, sometimes was astonished at Mr. Kennedy’s innocence. The 35th President embarked on a doomed adventure at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, an episode that is almost always described as a “fiasco,” and then, by his own account, was dominated if not humiliated at an early summit – “the worst thing in my life” –– with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. “He beat the hell out of me,” Mr. Kennedy confided hours after the meeting.
But Mr. Kennedy gained confidence as he gained experience, and by many measures – having become more surefooted in diplomatic affairs and more committed on civil rights – was on the way to a successful presidency when he was assassinated in November, 1963. And an earlier American president with scant political experience – a single term in the House, 14 years before he became president – encountered serious early difficulties when several Southern states seceded from the Union in his first months in office. Today Abraham Lincoln – an ingénue, in the estimation of many, including his own secretary of state, William H. Seward – is considered America’s greatest president.