Becoming and Unbecoming President

What the transition from Trump to Biden signifies for the office, the parties and the country.

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Possibly the most famous interview involving Donald Trump before he became president took place on March 31, 2016 with two journalists from The Washington Post: Robert Costa ’08, a national political correspondent, and Bob Woodward, an associate editor and the legendary Watergate sleuth.

In the interview, candidate Trump said: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.” He also said: “I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have.”

Woodward’s first book about the Trump presidency carries the one-word title Fear; the second — and most recent one — is called Rage.

But it’s another statement from that interview that caught my eye, and it concludes The Post’s story: “. . . after I win, I will be so presidential that you won’t even recognize me. You’ll be falling asleep, you’ll be so bored.”

President Trump has put few people — in the U.S. or abroad — to sleep the past four years. With his statements, tweets and actions, boredom hasn’t been diagnosed as a widespread political or social problem.

Many serious White House observers expected Trump to follow the path of his predecessors — to evolve and mature as he carried out the duties and responsibilities of America’s highest elective office. To say that he didn’t grow or develop as president is reflected almost daily on Twitter, and I was struck by these statistics in the AP VoteCast (or exit) survey of more than 110,000 Americans that was released after Election Day:

Joe Biden won 95 percent of the Democratic vote, 8 percent of the Republican vote, and 51 percent of independents. Donald Trump won 91 percent of Republican votes, 4 percent of Dem.ocratic votes, and 37 percent of independents. Biden did better in each category, with the 14-point margin for independents notable.

One wonders: How many of those fallen-away Republicans and Biden-voting independents were reacting to the behavior, with all its norm-breaking, that challenged traditional comportment by a president? That’s a question worth pondering.

The path to the Oval Office. (Nilington at English Wikipedia, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

After Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960, he wrote a memoir — actually at Kennedy’s urging — that he titled Six Crises, covering his national political career to that point.

Should Trump decide to set down his presidential experiences, he might call it Three Crises, and it would focus on:

  1. The Russia investigation that produced the Mueller Report
  2. The Ukraine imbroglio that resulted in his impeachment
  3. The Covid-19 pandemic with its economic consequences that radically reshaped his 2020 reelection campaign.

Each of them exerted an intense hold on the president and the public when they were playing out, to the near exclusion of almost everything else, then faded when the next arose. Think about it: How often did you hear the word “impeachment” during the campaign season despite Trump being the first president ever to secure his party’s nomination after being impeached? The immediate COVID-19 crisis dominated the political discourse.

From 2017, when Biden decided to seek the White House, he began positioning himself, quite deliberately and strategically, as antithetical to Trump. This approach — comparison by stark contrast — is important to note. Biden repeatedly emphasized harmony and unity rather than fear and discord. The president-elect spoke of working together to achieve agreement instead of engaging in perpetual conflict with opponents. In short, Biden portrayed himself as uniter-in-chief, while Trump came across to many observers as the polarizer-in-chief.

Nearly every action by the president in 2020 — subordinating mask-wearing, disregarding social-distancing, encouraging large gatherings, stressing economic implications — was flipped or inverted by Biden, who always donned a mask, kept audience members far apart and emphasized the centrality of scientific data in conquering COVID-19.

Wherever Biden went, he projected empathy — an outward demonstration of emotion that he understood the misery and sorrow so many people were and are experiencing during the pandemic. In the eyes of most, according to opinion surveys, that’s not a quality we see on display with any regularity by Trump, who thought he could win in 2020 as he had in 2016 — with packed rallies in critical states that built momentum and generated enthusiasm.

According to AP VoteCast exit poll, late-deciding voters — about 5 percent of the total — went for Trump 50 percent to Biden’s 38 percent. Without doubt, the president’s breakneck finish helped his cause.

While the Trump campaign continues to challenge election results in several states, what doesn’t receive enough attention is the encouraging fact that voter turnout reached 66.6 percent this year — the highest mark since 1908, when it was 65.4 percent. (The turnout four years ago was 59.2 percent.) The most recent count shows that Biden received nearly 80 million votes to Trump’s approximately 74 million.

Biden was probably the only Democratic candidate of the two dozen or so competing this cycle who was capable of winning — of defeating an incumbent president, something that isn’t all that common. Since 1900, it’s happened just six times in 21 elections involving sitting U.S. chief executives. George H.W. Bush in 1992 was the last incumbent to lose. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all have since won reelection.

When Biden becomes president on January 20, he likely will have a Republican-majority Senate and a House of Representatives with fewer Democrats than are currently there. This means an ambitious domestic agenda — tax restructuring, climate-change measures, immigration reform, reorganization on the judicial level, and the rest — will not definitely not occur. From the standpoint of legislative approval, it would be an impossibility.

Like Obama and Trump, he’ll be forced to rely on executive orders, which change or modify governmental policies — without becoming law, which has greater force and longevity. Trump, of course, reversed almost every Obama executive order, and now we can expect Biden to do the same for Trump’s orders.

An American president has much more latitude to act on international affairs than in domestic matters. Biden knows the world and its leading figures from his experience as long-time member and chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, as well as eight years as vice president. He’ll use that experience and his new office to make his mark on the world stage.

Biden views himself, at age 78, as a “transitional” figure — the bridge to a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party. By contrast, we already read of Donald Trump’s dream of a possible return to the White House in 2024. Should Trump — who will himself be 78 in 2024 — decide to run, he might freeze the Republican Party in place until the 2028 cycle.

As has certainly been the case the since 2016, Trump will remain in the global spotlight and continue to cast a large political shadow. To hazard a prediction: The public probably won’t “be falling asleep” because they’re “bored” — as Donald Trump promised would happen when he became president — even after he leaves the Oval Office.

Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record and The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump (both published by Notre Dame Press). This essay is adapted from a talk on “The U.S. Elections — Analysis and Outlook” for the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland in its Global Ireland Policy Series.