George Edwards III
An Unprecedented Presidency
Air Date: March 25, 2017
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our investigation today is of the American Chief Executive, from its beacon of democratic ideals, to the imperial presidency, to what appears increasingly an authoritarian mindset, if not regime, in the White House today. We explore this with the country’s leading presidential scholar, George Edwards III, university professor, and Chair of Presidential Studies at Texas A&M, home to the George H W Bush Presidential Library, author of the Princeton University Press volume, Predicting the Presidency, Edwards is editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly, and the Oxford Handbook of American Politics. His extensive scholarship from Washington to Trump, studies all aspects of the presidency, in particular, leadership, legislative success or lack thereof, and the constitutional systems governing our Commander in Chief. We’re going to root our examination in historical context today, and first, I must ask George if there is precedent for the American presidency to veer into autocratic waters as much as it has today.
EDWARDS: Well that’s certainly uh, an interesting way to start our conversation. And certainly there have been claims over time, that the President is an autocrat or is about to become an autocrat. Even George Washington was criticized by the Jeffersonians, as actually wanting to be a king. Uh, and we don’t think about that in, when we think about our founding fathers, but that’s exactly how it was. Andrew Jackson was often called King Jackson, uh, and Abraham Lincoln, the claims were that he was acting in an autocratic fashion, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and ignoring court responses to that. Um, he made a counterclaim that well, he was trying to save the union. That was, that was OK. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt, when he was very successful in congress, we think of the hundred days, for example, or the second New Deal, beginning in 1935.
And it was claimed that he too was an autocrat. So it is often the case that when presidents are successful, when they’re really operating and when they, and the rare instances when they get to dominate a political landscape, the claim is made that they are an autocrat. Uh, in the current politics, we have a president who began his tenure with some very high visibility, highly salient orders rather than legislative proposals. And I think that has once again, raised the issue, of the autocratic nature of the American presidency.
HEFFNER: Which contradicts the very essence of the conservative promise, ruling by executive fiat.
EDWARDS: Yes. The notion, well, the notion of our, our entire system is that it’s decentralized power, and there will be many players, many interests, and they’ll all be represented at the table, and we’ll have a balanced government. And that’s certainly what the Founders wanted, was balance. They really talked about balance quite a lot, and ultimately, every presidency ends up being more balanced than autocratic, because of the sharing of powers in our, in our constitutional system, and since you share powers, that means that there, that there are checks, there are balances that every school child learns. And they really do play a very prominent role in the nature of the American government.
HEFFNER: So it’s federalism for the win, or the rescue, but if you think about those two last instances you mentioned of Roosevelt and Lincoln, there was a driving impetus behind the assertion of power. The authoritarian model was compelled, as you mention, to save the Union, later on to save the economy. In this instance there isn’t a commanding policy vision, in fact, it is conditions of incoherence and pandemonium where government by dysfunction or disarray, or chaos. That, that wasn’t Roosevelt and that wasn’t Lincoln, was it? In, in…
HEFFNER: The managerial imperative to create chaos.
EDWARDS: Both Roosevelt and Lincoln faced existential crises, and Roosevelt faced it twice, uh, because later it was World War II. Uh, right now, uh, we don’t have an existential crisis. However, uh, Donald Trump ran for office, uh, telling Americans that they needed to fear, that they needed to fear international trade, they needed to fear immigration, for example, and, so his action regarding what is commonly called a travel ban, or, or at least a temporary travel ban while increased vetting of, uh, refugees, uh, is based on a notion that there actually is a crisis. Now that’s an empirical question, whether you have a crisis, and not everyone would agree that we have a crisis. But if you think that um, terrorists are pouring into our nation, and therefore we have to act immediately, and take draconian steps, um, then that is the same kind of argument that, that others have used. We have a crisis and thus I must act in this fashion.
As I say, it’s an empirical question of whether or not we have a crisis. And we’ve often made the mistake of, of crisis. For example, uh, all leaders come to office with a worldview of the way the world works, and why it works that way. So we can just go back a little bit in history, and we don’t have to go back very far, and we can see in Iraq, after 9-11, uh, American leaders were very risk averse, and that’s perfectly understandable, and they looked at Iraq, and they said, Iraq represents an existential crisis. Now, that’s really an empirical question, and they said, they concluded that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, and that they threatened the United States. Well that’s a pretty serious matter, if that’s the case. Now it turns out it wasn’t the case. They didn’t have Weapons of Mass Destruction, and they were not a threat to the United States, but when people have that in their head, and when they don’t vet this thoroughly, when they don’t challenge the premises of policies, then you often have policy disaster.
HEFFNER: Or if you imagine those crises that don’t exist and then prescribe solutions, in your mind, that are the antithesis to solving them, in fact, there’s blowback.
EDWARDS: Well that’s absolutely right. And that’s one, one of the many reasons that leaders, presidents, need to have a good handle on the nature of policy. They can’t just rely on advisors. It’s not enough to saw, well I’m a great chief executive, so all I have to do is sit here, and then my advisors will give me the options and the information I need, and then I’ll make a decision. And this notion that all we have to do is get the right person at the helm of the ship of state and everything will go smoothly, because they’ll be advised, and they’re wise, and they’ll make good decisions, is illusory. That’s not the way the world actually works.
HEFFNER: Historically rooted, what do you observe as the most unprecedented of the unprecedented features of this president and administration, the lack of elected office for government service, was the most obvious during the campaign, as was the refusal to release tax returns, as is increasingly a mental state which is in question. So, when you add those, combined…
HEFFNER: How do you measure it from any historical orientation?
EDWARDS: Well the President certainly started from a, a weak basis, which is not a criticism of the president. He got as many votes as he could, but he got nearly three million votes fewer, fewer votes than Hilary Clinton. So, that undermines any claim to a mandate. And it certainly, when you get 46% of the vote, it’s not uh, a showing of an outpouring of support from the American people, so that’s just a, a weak position from which to begin your, your tenure in office. There certainly has been a lack of transparency in uh, in his business dealings and other matters, uh, regarding his health, regarding his taxes, regarding his conflicts of interest. And so that, that has been, that has been important, but it’s really, in a way a sideshow to the operation of the presidency itself. I think it’s also interesting that this, this President has chosen people uh, more to the extremes on an ideological spectrum. We would certainly expect a Republican President to get conservative Republicans, natural in, in, as advisors, as appointees, and uh, that’s, the president has certainly done that.
But he’s also chosen people with somewhat idiosyncratic views, uh, Mr. Bannon is an example of that. And he has, he has chosen people who by and large don’t have governing experience. And he himself doesn’t have governing experience. And I, I think we see some of the, some of the outcome of this in, in the uh, early days of the Trump Presidency, when we have hastily written, uh, Executive Orders, or when we have policy made somewhat, apparently, off the cuff, and without proper vetting, and usually policy doesn’t, doesn’t have to be made in, in one or two days. You can, you indeed vet things properly. The President seems to be uh, insensitive to that. One can hope that he will, he will learn from, from his early uh, early experiences, and be, be more systematic and more thorough in the future. But that’s, that’s a speculation at this point.
HEFFNER: One of the most stunning things to me, and I wrote about this in a Time Magazine essay, was the absence of any references to Trump’s forefathers in the RNC acceptance speech. When he accepted the Republican nomination for President, there was no ode to any past President, living or symbolic.
HEFFNER: To me that was a daunting notion of a lack of inspiration from our very creed, our very fiber, as Americans.
EDWARDS: Well that has, that has been noted and, and you’re absolutely right. I, I think, I can only speculate here, but I think that the President sees himself as not uh, not in terms of continuity, but in terms of an intervention, and intervention that’s different, that’s gonna take America in a different direction.
HEFFNER: Does that have precedence?
EDWARDS: Uh, well, certainly it, it is not unusual for presidents to think that they’re doing something fundamentally different. One can only go back as far as Ronald Reagan and he says, look, I’m, I’m really quite different. I’m really a different kind of president, and I expect to make major changes in public policy. Um, John F. Kennedy came in and said, I’m gonna make major changes in public policy, and the torch is passed to a new generation, and we’ve got new things to do. So, and Franklin Roosevelt, he didn’t campaign as, as a radical if you will, campaigned a rather, as more of a conservative, uh, but when he got into office, certainly, and immediately started making major changes in public policy. He…
HEFFNER: But could you trace…
EDWARDS: Along with congress…
HEFFNER: Could you trace back Reagan, Roosevelt, Kennedy, can you trace back their DNA to the origin of presidential,
EDWARDS: Well yes,
HEFFNER: Being, in way…
EDWARDS: They, they, they, they were, they were likely to strike the chord that I’m, I’m continuing in a great tradition, and that I’m really fulfilling fundamental values of Americans, and that’s, I’m just, I’m just the latest iteration of this. And we may have slipped a bit in the previous administration, but, but we’re going to get back on the beam here. And uh, that’s, that is, that is very common, to invoke the past, and to invoke great leaders of the past, and great values and ideas of the past and the American creed. Uh, I, I’m not sure that Donald Trump really is, is overly sensitive to American history, and I don’t think he thinks in those terms. I mean at least that’s my observation. I don’t know him personally. I want to make that clear. And, and I don’t think that he thinks, uh, he thinks in certain, in certain terms clearly, he thinks a lot in terms of protecting people, uh, protecting them from competition, protecting them from terrorists, example, uh, uh, for example, and he, he sees America as, Americans, at the moment, as victims, and that they’re victims of, of countries that don’t pay enough into NATO, they’re victims of countries that, that has unfair trade with us or that, that send people across, across our borders, or that terrorize us, or, or whatever. And, and therefore, he needs to protect, to protect Americans. That is not, typically, typically the tact that an American president takes.
HEFFNER: We’re recording now, and who knows what has transpired…
HEFFNER: In the intervening days and weeks, but this question of accountability, checks and balances that you alluded to from the outset, you have studied, formulaically and anecdotally, the evolution of the presidency, the limits of the bully pulpit, the, the evolution of the bully pulpit, and how do you see this in all of its eventualities, ultimately unfolding?
EDWARDS: Right. Well, Donald Trump is a good, good example to, to use for, for this question. It’s quite natural for a new president, basking in the glow of an electoral victory, and having just spent two years, probably, talking to party leaders and party activists in the American public, and won the biggest prize in American politics by doing so, to think that they must be a really persuasive fellow. It’s, it’s quite natural for that. And it’s quite natural for them to look out on the political landscape to say, you know, there’s a lot of impediments to change. You know, we have a lot of gridlocks, stalemate, characterizes the American politics. A lot of people complain about that. You know, nothing’s getting done. And I’ve just claimed that I can get something done. I’ve just been making promises that I can get something done. And so the force of my personality as such, and my persuasiveness, I’m going to create opportunities for change. I’m going to change that political landscape, and pave the way for change. Uh, and it’s quite appealing for us as observers to think about history in terms of great presidents, and to explain the big changes that did, did take place, such as the New Deal, for example, or the Reagan revolution, if you like, uh, in terms of a really persuasive, great president who, who uh, had unusual skills and a great leadership style. But the fact is, that that’s all wrong. And, and it’s the context that really matters, the opportunity structures.
HEFFNER: The circumstances.
EDWARDS: Yeah, yeah, that, that a president faces. One part of the opportunity is, you know, what’s happening in the economy at the time, et cetera. Another part of the opportunity is the hand that the voters have dealt the president in the last election. Did they give him a mandate? Did they give him majorities in both houses of Congress, that sort of thing? But when it comes just, focusing for the moment on, on relations wit the public and presidents, modern presidents all spend a lot of time, dealing with the public, and certainly, Donald Trump tweets the public quite frequently, uh, as president. So he’s trying to communicate with, with the public, and then of course they, they use the press. The fact is that, that presidents almost never move the public in their direction. They virtually always fail. And that’s the case of Franklin Roosevelt, that’s the case of Ronald Reagan, that’s the case of Bill Clinton. Take any great politician in the modern times where we have data, and the same thing has happened.
And so, one would have to predict for Donald Trump that he won’t be able to do that either. He started with a weak base which is, again, like I say, not a criticism, just where he started, without a mandate, the general tenure of, and, and he didn’t, he didn’t specify a lot in his campaign, about policy. It was a broader, aspirational type of campaign.
HEFFNER: Which led people to hope that he could…
HEFFNER: Channel the pragmatism of American politics…
EDWARDS: Exactly, exactly.
HEFFNER: Rather than appeal to the extremes.
EDWARDS: Right, Make American Great Again, is a pretty broad…
EDWARDS: Focus. OK, so…
HEFFNER: Hence, hence winning over Bernie Sanders supporters in Wisconsin…
EDWARDS: Exactly, exactly. So then, then we face as a problem. Alright, I didn’t start strong, but can I get some, get more people. Are people at least generally open to what I want to do? And it’s a mixed bag there. You know, people like tax cuts, people like their borders being protected but, but they don’t necessarily like, uh, abuses uh, of refugees, et cetera. The country is highly polarized. Public opinion is highly, highly polarized. And the question there is, are there people in the middle that you can get and bring to your side? You can just convince them with your, you good arguments that you’re gonna be making to the public, your tweets or whatever, can you bring them to your side? But when the public’s highly polarized, you can’t, because they’re way over here. They’re not in the middle. They’re way over here.
And finally, you’ve got a fundamental problem that you need to understand, and very few presidents actually understand at the beginning of their tenure. They understand at the end of their tenure, but not at the beginning of their tenure, so they make big mistakes, and that is, is public opinion very malleable? And the answer is, that it’s not very malleable. As it, as it turns out, uh, it’s hard to get the public’s attention, and maintain it. You speak a lot through the press. There’s a lot of distrust of the press. There’s a lot of distrust of the White House because of polarization. People have predispositions about public policy, strong predispositions. And it’s very hard to change those predispositions. And, the public is misinformed, frequently, not just uninformed, but misinformed.
And ironically, the more misinformed they are, the harder it is to overcome, to correct that, that misinformation, the stronger they feel in, in those views. Um, and so, it’s, it’s extremely difficult to persuade people to change their minds, and presidents almost always fail to do so. And, and they, they being, thinking they can. Think of Barack Obama at the beginning of his tenure, who can give a very god speech, can be very eloquent, thought that he could just take his case to the public. He was very open about it, his advisors were very open about it, and they will rally to my side.
HEFFNER: How do you see the possibility of a contemporary presidency that is not plagued by the kind of ideological tension that we have talked about today?
EDWARDS: There’s not good prospects in the short term for that. When you start out with a, a highly polarized public, which we have, it’s just the most fundamental fact of life in American politics, is the public is highly polarized. So they, they look at the same information. They look at the same world, and see different things. And um, so, democrats are upset at Russia. Republicans are now thinking more positively about Russia, because the leader they already support, Donald Trump, is thinking more positively about Russia. So they’re looking at the same world with, with different colored glasses, and…
HEFFNER: But as a function of being power hungry, or wanting to stabilize their power.
EDWARDS: Both, both sides want, want to take power. And they have, they have fundamental, fundamental differences, and when it looks like, by the way, that both, each side, can actually get power, and think of how often the senate has changed hands o-, over the last 20 years, um, which is not historically common, um, that means that you have a real incentive to oppose, to not make the other party look good. So that’s an overlay as well. And so you want, you, you want power, you don’t want to cooperate, you want the other party to look bad. So whatever they do has got to be bad. So you, so, Republicans oppose Barack Obama from day one. And I think that it, frankly I think that it’s nonsense to say, well we would have negotiated with him, you know if he’d just been willing to negotiate with us, I think that’s largely nonsense. Tell me the alternatives they offered for Obama Care. I mean just tell me what, what was it that they were willing to do. he did, you know on, on the uh, fiscal stimulus, he went half, virtually halfway with them, meaning, making almost half of it tax cuts. I mean those are just two big, early policies that set the tone for the Obama administration. Democrats are not likely to think highly of much of what Donald Trump will have to offer, I’m sure, as soon as it gets offered. And we’re still, we’re still waiting on that.
Um, so, if you’ve got, if you’re got this, this polarization, and you don’t have some concentral issues which are dominant. I mean, and by, an example of that, World War II was a concentral issue which dominated everything. Now God help us, we don’t want something like that.
HEFFNER: Right, I mean,
EDWARDS: Yeah, yeah.
HEFFNER: We don’t want it to be created…
HEFFNER: For the purpose of…
HEFFNER: Coalescing power.
HEFFNER: We talked at the beginning about President’s own perception, or the publics’ perception of the president as king, but, when the public sees the king has no clothes, um, or no grounding in democratic values, the case in point, I was surprised you did not mention, was Watergate, because of the parallels now, in the ongoing investigation, when does the public wake up to a president, president-king with no clothes.
EDWARDS: Well it, it can take a while, particularly because of polarization, so it’s, so, right now, um, Donald Trump’s supporters are still his supporters. His base seems pretty solid to me, and he’s got, more people disapprove of him than approve of him, but his base doesn’t seem to be weakening. And he’s going to have some campaign rallies for the next campaign, four years from now, apparently. Uh, and uh, it’s going to take quite a while. Now, what actually turns people’s attention ultimately is, day after day, in the news, things they can understand, which looks like failure. So ultimately, ultimately, um, the American public came to see Richard Nixon as, as having violated the law, and therefore probably needed, needed to be impeached. But still, still, about half his party stuck with him, even at the very…
HEFFNER: Through and election, through an election…
EDWARDS: Well through an election…
HEFFNER: As the investigations wind…
EDWARDS: But even, even in, even at the end, think about this, that, at the end, towards August of 1974, and he resigns, and he’s down in the 20’s in, in approval, but that had to come from somewhere. Now if you look at what percentage of his party was supporting him, we’re talking about, roughly half his party was still with him. Democrats, virtually every one was against him, um, Independents, against him, but a lot of his party stuck with him to the bitter end. Even after all of the months and months and months of highly visible testimony carried live on TV very prominently, uh, they still stuck with him. So I think that President Trump’s supporters are going to stick with him. Answer, and, you know we’re nowhere near Watergate here. I don’t want to imply that what, President Trump is in danger of being impeached. I know that that is certainly something that Democrats have been talking about since day one, that there would be an impeachment ultimately. But we have a long way to go,
EDWARDS: Before that happens.
HEFFNER: Well it’s far fetched when we think about fireside chats devolving into emojis, as the twitter president, but…
HEFFNER: Hopefully we can retain a degree of rigor in our public affairs and we thank you, George for helping us do that today.
EDWARDS: It’s been my pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.