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September 20th, 2017

Insight

Presidential images, a work in progress

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Jan. 16, 2017

Presidential images, a work in progress

In the days leading to his inauguration, Donald J. Trump almost certainly has not paused to consider the presidency of James K. Polk, who occupied the White House from 1845 to 1849. But there is an element of the 11th president in the 45th president, especially in the Tennessean’s remark that “I intend to be myself president of the U.S.”

For no one doubts that Mr. Trump intends to be himself as president of the United States. But the question remains whether Mr. Trump will conform to public expectations of the presidency or whether his supporters expect that he will alter expectations of the office.

Those presidential expectations change over time. The presidency of the three Republican chief executives of the 1920s — modest, passive, for the most part quiet — was a far different office from the presidency of the two Democratic leaders of the 1960s, when the White House first emerged as the center of celebrity and the command post of a muscular bureaucracy that even Franklin Delano Roosevelt never dared contemplate.

If Mr. Polk was the last strong president of pre-Civil War America, might Mr. Trump emerge as a strong president in the Polk image? Perhaps, though the pattern — Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan — tends to put strong presidents directly following weaker ones, a pattern that the presidential historian Stephen Skowronek points out also extends to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and to James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.

But that raises two questions: How will history judge Barack Obama? (Mr. Trump and other Republicans have spent the last several months arguing that Mr. Obama was too strong a president, extending executive power beyond constitutional bounds.) And in a living, breathing institution such as the American presidency, must do patterns necessarily repeat themselves? (There have been only 44 presidencies, after all — a statistically insignificant universe to establish meaningful patterns.)

Plus this: Nothing Mr. Trump has done, either in his campaign or in his presidential transition, has conformed to any pattern, or even any established logic, and that has been the secret to his success.

This has come into recent focus because, during a 73-day transition period that ordinarily would be regarded as a period of reconciliation and reflection — a time usually marked by warm cooperation between the departing president and his replacement — there has been unusual contention. There is, for example, no precedent for Mr. Trump’s late December public intervention in the United Nations Security Council vote on Israel’s settlements.

“Presidents-elect usually give the existing president the courtesy of not trying to intervene,” George C. Edwards III, the respected Texas A & M University expert on the presidency, said in an interview. “And often they don’t even want to be involved, or be held accountable for former presidents’ actions.”

Indeed, while Mr. Trump itched to be involved in the Israel matter, the greatest example of transition frisson came from an earlier president-elect’s fervent desire not to be involved in his predecessor’s initiatives.

This came in the days leading up to Christmas in 1932, when incumbent President Herbert Hoover asked Gov. Franklin Roosevelt to join him in Depression-era matters involving World War I debts owed to the United States. The Roosevelt answer, delivered in a letter to the White House, was stark and clear:

“I think you will recognize that it would be unwise for me to accept an apparent joint responsibility with you when, as a matter of constitutional fact, I would be wholly lacking in any attendant authority.”

In the case of Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama, as in the case of the 31st and 32nd presidents — one an engineer from Iowa whose presidential run was his first political campaign, the other a career politician from New York who had run for the state Senate, vice president and, twice, for governor and had addressed national political conventions three times before his own presidential nomination — the principals have very little in common.

And yet the two men — Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama — faced the same question: whether in their presidencies to be the same as their predecessors or to be different from them.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama repeatedly said that no one with a name like his had ever been considered a plausible presidential candidate and, in remarks during his 2008 campaign in Springfield, Mo., he said that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.”

Mr. Obama played it both ways, playing down his race as president — a decision many black scholars and activists deplored — even as he occasionally acknowledged it, especially in a celebrated moment in 2012 when, in reaction to the shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old black boy in Florida, he remarked, “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”


Still, Mr. Obama attempted to adapt to presidential form. Following a campaign kerfuffle over the absence of a flag pin on his lapel, the pin appeared on his suits as president, an homage to a tradition begun by Richard Nixon. He ended his 2013 State of the Union Address by saying “God bless you, and God bless these United States of America,” another Nixon innovation. (Mr. Trump was criticized for being the first president-elect in 32 years not to say “God bless America” at the end of his acceptance speech.)

So now Mr. Trump must confront the question of whether he conforms to what Walter Lippmann, the political commentator who popularized the term “stereotype,” called the “pictures in our heads.” For older Americans and presidential scholars, the picture in their heads is Franklin Roosevelt, or perhaps John F. Kennedy. For others it is Ronald Reagan and, for the youngest among us, Mr. Obama himself.

Mr. Trump was born during the Harry Truman years, was 10 in the Dwight Eisenhower presidency, and first voted in the election that swept Mr. Nixon to office. The pictures in his head could come from any one of those presidents, or perhaps from the presidents he met as a real estate and casino tycoon, a group that includes Bill Clinton who, with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, attended Mr. Trump’s wedding at Mar-a-Lago in January 2005.

In a decade or so Mr. Trump will be one of the pictures in other people’s heads. It’s up to him whether, in forming that picture, he looks in the mirror — or to the past.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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