The Power of Persuasion (or, Politics?)
Just when you think you've figured someone out...you haven't. This is why I love animals--they are predictable to a methodical extent that pleases my little control freak heart. Politicians? I love but understand? Nope, not now, not yet, maybe not ever.
When I was in graduate school, we were required to take a class in American Institutions. As a behaviorist (who adores public opinion, campaigns and elections, political knowledge, protests, etc.), understanding the crooked nuances that make our lovely political institutions that pillars of society that they are seemed simultaneously overwhelming and boring. I struggled to find interest in analyzing the interworking of Congressional subcommittees and the complicated judicial process, unique with its own process, policies, procedures, and even jargon, failed to captivate me. Now leading the class discussion as an educator, I find these topics to be far more fascinating than I ever did as a student but trust me when I say that at the time, I did not enjoy. Not. At. All.
The only part I remember revealing in as we went through the class was our discussion about presidential persuasion. Reading and analyzing texts by Stephen Skowronek (The Politics the Presidents Make), Richard Neustadt (Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents), and Jeffrey Tulis (The Rhetorical Presidency) allowed me to apply my interest in behavior to the most powerful position in the country and review other interpretations of this phenomenon. Each author was paramount in contributing to the literature but what I remember from the collection was that they argued that the president had far more power than the provisions in the Constitution merely outlined. Beyond the Second Article, the president had the ability to use rhetoric, strategic tactics, and persuasion to ensure his agenda was accomplished. Some presidents were notably very effective at this (FDR for the Democrats through his fireside chats and Reagan for the Republicans with his movie-star charisma). Some (God Bless Jimmy Carter, for he is a far more effective man now out of office than he was in) are not.
That sets it up for us now, what about President Trump and the current administration? In less than a full year of a term, of course it would usually be very difficult to say, but this administration and the current political culture more generally are obviously anything *but* usual. Disregarding politics, the President fails to be articulate in virtually all manners of speech, a short-coming that would generally prove the mark of a short-lived political career for any other politician. Instead, for Trump, this reinforces the narrative that he understands the everyman and is not the sly politician seething in the swamp his supporters fervently decry to be drained. His use of social media serves as Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit, and he connects instantly with thousands of supporters through his excruciatingly simple but remarkably powerful tweets.
Earlier this week, the President told Congress that he would be suspending DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated under the Obama administration) and that they would have six months to create a replacement program, presumably more aligned with their own values. The official announcement came on Tuesday, on the heels after Labor Day weekend, though much of the glory in describing it went to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a man who has not seen too much glory recently in the administration following a scathing showdown between himself and the chief). I was actually driving to speak at a Rotary event so I had to catch up on the full press briefing later (and if you missed it, The New York Times covered it here) but as I listened to commentary on my way home and caught the briefing later in the evening, the message was clear: President Trump did not support the program and he expected Congress to do something about it.
I said it was clear because it really was; I can't believe that anyone watching that conference had any question or doubt afterwards about the President's stance. And yet later that evening, for good measure, the President tweeted this:
The rhetoric is far from sophisticated or even impressive but the message is clear and the strategy behind it, in my mind, is even more so. The President took a page out of the Skowronek/Neustadt/Tulis playbook and used his relationship with the voting public to ensure they knew 1) where his stance was (against it!) 2) whose responsibility it was (Congress!) and 3) when it had to be resolved (6 months! Whew, good thing they don't have other issue items on the agenda, like Healthcare or Taxation or Foreign Trade deals...) Elegant? Hardly. Direct? Completely. Brilliant strategic tacit or shallow personal powerplay? Stay tuned until mid-March when the series resumes...