The Myth of the Passive President

President Donald Trump gives the impression of having done everything in his first month in the White House—except think about Congress.

A couple of months ago, there were congressional Republicans reluctantly on the Trump train who would have welcomed such neglect. They believed that Trump might be a figurehead president. He would tweet, give speeches and wear red hats, while they set the agenda. He would “sign our stuff,” as some Republicans put it, but otherwise leave them alone.

An article in Slate in November expressed this expectation under the headline, “Welcome to the Paul Ryan Presidency.”

The view of Trump as little more than a presidential auto-pen has turned out to be wholly mistaken. First, it underestimated Trump’s ability to establish air, sea and land dominance in the nation’s political conversation to the exclusion of all other Republican voices. Two, it failed to appreciate how necessary presidential leadership is to getting anything done on Capitol Hill.

At this rate, congressional Republicans won’t send the president anything significant to sign, let alone set the agenda.

Trump has totally eclipsed congressional Republicans with a flurry of executive orders, Twitter outrages, White House meetings and all-around melodrama that drive the political debate hour by hour. Watching cable news, you could be forgiven for occasionally forgetting that there is a co-equal branch of government called Congress, except insofar as its members are forced to react to whatever Trump is saying or doing.

Trump has created a sense of action bordering on headlong momentum through the sheer force of his frenetic personality.

Some of the motion is significant. He nominated to the Supreme Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, who will get confirmed and represent an enduring achievement. Trump’s commitment to begin enforcing the immigration laws again is a signature departure from the status quo. But many of the Trump-initiated battles of the first month—over crowd sizes, illegal votes, fake news and the rest of it—have fed the perpetual outrage machine with pleasingly empty calories.

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