Competency and the American Presidency

Much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. It is an interesting attribute inasmuch as it can connote different meanings. The Webster’s Dictionary defines it simply as “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” But the word implies a deeper meaning that actually clarifies what is “requisite or adequate.” The Latin root (com ”together” and petere “to seek or strive”) is a transitive verb that requires an object. The Latin verb petere literally means “to reach towards” something. In other words, whatever ability or quality one may have can be seen as “requisite or adequate” in terms of the object or goal that is sought. For example, when Olympic athletes compete, do they compete to win fame and fortune, or to better their personal best performance and honor the country they represent? The former is a selfish objective; the latter is an expression of character. Now we know all Olympic athletes have the “requisite or adequate ability or qualities” to compete in the Olympics. They satisfy the literal meaning of competency. But, in choosing a President, we not only assess observable attributes that may qualify a person for the job but also his/her reason or objectives for seeking office. The latter must reflect a desire to do one’s best in service of America’s founding principles and the general welfare of its people. In this instance, competency does have a deeper connotation. If the objective is only to gain boasting rights by winning a hard fought contest, then the level of competency exhibited both by the candidate and the campaign is questionable. The presidency is more than a victory prize and definitely not a reason for self-aggrandizement. The grandeur of the office should humble the man or woman who occupies it. Not the other way around. Lack of experience may be a factor in judging a candidate’s fitness. But native ability can overcome inexperience. Lack of character, on the other hand, is a sine qua non. Simply stated, character is an absolute prerequisite for any President. Without it, there is a serious lack of competency.

“To the victor belong the spoils” is too often the common parlance for describing political campaigns. Competing, in this contemporary usage, usually implies being “in a state of rivalry,” as Webster’s Dictionary also notes. While competition can bring out the best in opponents, it does not have to become a contest between mortal adversaries. To compete, or “to seek or strive together,” implies a communal effort to discover which candidate can best serve the country’s citizens and their collective values. Service, then, should be the prime objective for each Party’s nominee. Candidates may and will differ in their policies and promises, but they should be aligned in this overall objective. If they are so aligned, then they will be respectful and cordial with each other. But the pursuit of power for its own sake will always result in belittling, demonizing, or otherwise denigrating the opposing candidate. The reason for this incivility is not inherent to campaigning. Rather, it is derived from a misguided objective, namely, winning for its own sake. Winning in this case is all there is and “takes no prisoners”; for only the victor collects the spoils in power, prestige, and self-image. These spoils are, in truth, the selfish goals of adolescents and contribute to the crass image of politicians. Mature adults paint their future with a broader brush, to include the welfare of family, friends, community, and nation. Why should we consider any candidate competent who persists in adolescence?

Again, much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. When we look at competency in the light of its purpose or objective, we gain a new understanding of the nominees’ campaign slogans: “make America great again”; and “we are stronger together.” The first slogan touted how a powerful man could make America great and powerful again—implying it had lost its greatness and power. The second slogan suggested that Americans should “seek or strive together” to achieve their goals. Naturally, these slogans are indicative of the spirit and direction of a campaign; but they are too generic for determining a candidate’s competency for office. Apart from campaign slogans, what objectives did the candidates’ policies reveal? Well, both candidates proposed specific policy positions. But only one has the opportunity to act on them. So let us review what President Trump is actually doing in office. In the last three weeks, for example, he has nominated people for key positions in his Administration and has issued about as many executive orders as his predecessor over the same period. We are now in a better position to assess his competency in terms of his actions. During the campaign, critics often belittled his promises as unrealistic, counterproductive, or worse. His supporters argued that his words were taken literally without regard to their intent because he was not “politically correct.” But now we no longer have to parse his words to guess at his intent. Here is what he has done:
➣ He nominated Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In a 2015 article, Mr. Carson critiqued HUD’s attempt to reduce racial discrimination in housing as “the failed socialist experiment of the 1980s.” He also condemned public housing as social engineering. And one of his spokesmen claimed Mr. Carson felt unqualified to run a cabinet level department. Given the fair housing objectives of HUD, how does Mr. Carson’s avowed beliefs and self-assessment align with them?
➣ He nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has long been an opponent of public education in favor of private or chartered schools. In her home state of Michigan she funded a referendum that would have allowed public funding of private religious schools. Given the American commitment to public education, what does Ms. DeVos offer to the Department of Education?
➣ He nominated Tim Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). As a Georgia congressman, he has consistently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, and objected to the HHS’ mission of providing healthcare to poor Americans. As President Trump’s nominee he would have undoubtedly carried out the President’s recent executive order to prohibit HHS from issuing any further regulations or guidance to the states for their administration of the ACA or Planned Parenthood. This order would have effectively silenced the innovation centers established by the ACA to improve healthcare delivery and reduce costs. But, after negative public feedback, the President decided to rescind his order. Given Mr. Price’s position against the HHS mission and established healthcare programs, is there any doubt that he will carry out the intent of the President’s directive. After he disables the current operations, what new direction will he provide to HHS?
➣ He nominated Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor. As the wealthy proprietor of a fast-food chain, Mr. Puzder has repeatedly fought his workforce over wages and is an avowed opponent of increasing the minimum wage, of paid family leave, and of Obama’s efforts to increase overtime pay. Given these anti-labor positions, what does Mr. Puzder offer the Department of Labor?
➣ He nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General to head the Justice Department. Senator Sessions is well known for his past association with white supremacists and nonsupport of voting rights. Because of these issues the Senate previously denied his nomination to a federal judgeship. Given the Attorney General’s role in enforcing civil rights and fair voting practices, what does Mr. Sessions offer as our chief protector of civil rights and equal justice for all?
➣ He nominated former Governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy. Besides the fact that Mr. Perry actually wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, he famously admitted his ignorance of its mission. He thought he was being asked to become an advocate for oil and gas production, which is in part the concern of the Department of the Interior. Instead, the Energy Department oversees the country’s nuclear programs, including its arsenal of nuclear bombs. His lack of qualifications for the job is magnified by the fact that his predecessor was a nuclear physicist. Given his embarrassing unpreparedness for the job, what does Mr. Perry’s clueless acceptance of his nomination tell us about his judgment? Should this man be given responsibility to manage the nation’s stockpile of the world’s most devastating weapons of mass destruction?
➣ He nominated Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Mr. Tillerson is a highly successful business man, in fact, the former CEO of the energy giant ExxonMobil. Because of the international nature of the gas and oil business, Rex Tillerson is already familiar with many of the world leaders. The only concerns about his nomination are his lack of experience in diplomacy and possible conflicts of interest. He has worked his whole professional life for just one company. And he had just completed negotiations with Russia’s President Putin for joint gas exploration in the Artic when Obama’s sanctions against Russia blocked the deal. The value of this Exxon-Russian agreement is half a trillion dollars. Although Mr. Tillerson has moved his Exxon stock into a blind trust, any action he might take as Secretary of State to eliminate the Obama sanctions would result in a huge windfall for his Exxon stock portfolio, currently worth about 150 million dollars. Given his lack of foreign policy experience and possible conflict of interest, can Mr. Tillerson be effective as America’s top diplomat?
➣ He nominated Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Pruitt is a climate change denier and an avowed opponent of the EPA which, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he is currently suing. In fact, in his role as Attorney General, he created an organization within his office to fight any Obama Administration regulations on healthcare and environmental issues. Perhaps in an effort to help Mr. Pruitt, President Trump has already issued an Executive Order to change the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan to allow dumping of coal plant waste in fresh water rivers and cancel the coal plant requirement to scrub smokestack emissions. Furthermore, the President had also ordered the EPA’s website on climate change to be taken down and had put a gag order on the agency. That order would not have allowed any EPA employee to attend meetings, confer with associates in other agencies, or communicate with private sector organizations such as the press on any work issues. Since the EPA is constantly monitoring superfund cleanup sites and engaging with state organizations regarding clean air and water issues, it would have been severely hampered by the President’s actions. After much negative public feedback, the President rescinded this order. But, at this writing, his amendment to the Clean Power Plan remains. Given the President’s and Mr. Pruitt’s obvious anti-EPA bias, what benefit will this nominee bring to the functions of this agency and its role in preserving clean air and water for all Americans and in fighting the impact of climate change?
➣ He is considering a nominee recommended by one of his billionaire associates to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The President is looking at this prospective nominee because he promises to eliminate FDA testing of drugs released for market. Apparently, the President believes it is more important to bring new drugs to the market sooner than to determine their effectiveness and safety in controlled lab testing. Instead these drugs would be tested in the marketplace. Since he has not yet decided on a candidate, the recommended nominee will not be named here. But does anybody believe FDA testing and approving of new drugs should be so off-handedly discarded?
➣ He ordered the Department of Homeland Security to ban all emigrants from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the country. Initially, this immigration ban included visa and green card holders. When challenged in the courts, the Trump administration offered to exclude these pre-cleared immigrants who in fact are legal residents. But the President’s order would still ban about 100,000 potential Syrian refugees who were expected to be granted visas this year. At least 65,000 of these refugees have already cleared background checks and have waited an average of two years in refugee camps for these visas. Most of them are families with children. How do these people deal with this crushing set-back? Of course, the President has the authority to manage the immigration system. But there are at least three problems here that speak to competency. First, he failed to consult with the State Department which surely would have excluded immigrants with visas or green cards, many of whom were routinely returning to home or school in America. Secondly, the President bragged that he was following through on a campaign promise to ban Muslims and excoriated the judge who stayed his order as a “so-called judge.” Some may excuse these remarks by saying he misspoke. But his words trample on the First Amendment and the separation of powers. Thirdly and more significantly, this ban on Syrian refugees is inhuman and un-American. In my opinion, the manner and intent of the President’s actions count as three strikes against his competency.
➣ He cancelled funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. Perhaps he wants to assure that no painter or sculptor will ever record his image in the halls of our American institutions.

After the actions of his first weeks in office, where do you think President Trump falls on the pendulum between capitalism and democracy? The answer to this question is important for it affects a delicate balance in our American system. Specifically, our free markets are an expression of individual freedom. But free markets are normalized in our republican democracy by a government tasked with guaranteeing civil rights and justice for all. That guarantee translates into equal opportunity, perhaps the most tangible expression of the “pursuit of happiness” declared in the Declaration of Independence. Both capitalism and democracy have integral roles in providing equal opportunity. But it is government that arbitrates this integration in the interest of all its citizens. Can you see a pattern in the President’s cabinet appointments that would favor equal opportunity in jobs, in healthcare, in education? Also, how would our freedom be affected by voter suppression laws and an unsafe environment? Our new President comes into office as a disruptor of government policies and against the Washington “elites.” I think his initial appointments and Executive Orders confirm his role as a disruptor. But how does he intend to rebuild the departments and restore faith in the institutions and practices he seems intent on dismantling and disavowing? Without knowing what follows, how do we determine the competency of this disruptor? Remember the story of Humpty Dumpty: “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Frankly, the President has overwhelmed Americans with all the controversies he has spawned in his short time in office. The Mexican dollar, for example, has collapsed as a result of the President’s tariff threats and demands that Mexico pay for his proposed border wall. The falling Mexican dollar reduces labor cost which ironically entices American businesses to relocate there and encourages Mexican laborers to seek better wages in America. Currently, Mexican migrants do not represent the problem Trump imagines in his alternate universe. The Mexican migration to the United States has been in a steady decline for years, in inverse ratio to the growth of the Mexican economy. But the President’s threats may reverse both trends while ignoring the real problem. Many of the border crossings to date are from Central America, where failing governments, roving bands of thugs and robbers, and drought conditions bred by global warming have created unbearable conditions. Rather than addressing the problems in Central America, the President has issued an Executive order to begin extension of the border wall, using Federal funds he has arbitrarily reallocated from other programs and without any guarantee of sufficient funds to complete the project. In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Tom Friedman wondered whether the President’s border wall would be any more effective than the Mediterranean Sea in stopping refugees. Nevertheless, the President is as dogged in pursuit of his wall as Don Quixote in battling windmills.

The President has unsettled many nations and world leaders besides Mexico and its President. China is equally wary of his position on the “one China” policy. One might imagine Angela Merkel’s surprise when she had to explain for him the Geneva Conventions’ position on torture. Not only the German leader, but the Prime Ministers of Australia and England are equally troubled by his refugee ban that has inspired protests around the world. England’s House of Commons argued for three hours over a resolution to ban our President from visiting the United Kingdom on a state visit. Although the MPs did not vote on that resolution, more recently they were united in prohibiting President Trump from addressing the full Parliament because of its long held opposition “to racism and to sexism.” It appears that the only world leader who is willing to say nice things about our President is Vladimir Putin. Naturally, he would welcome a transactional American President with whom he might be able to deal without those pesky concerns of treaty obligations (Crimea), the sovereignty of nations (Ukraine), and genocide (Syria). Besides, Putin not only agrees with some of the President’s positions (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump?”) but also supported him during his election campaign. With the stakes set at half a trillion dollars, why would Putin not welcome a deal maker to a seat at his table?

The wording of the initial refugee ban and the recent failed Special Forces raid in Yemen seem to show a White House operating in self-imposed isolation from the established institutions of government. In time the President will likely learn how to wield the levers of government. In the meantime, he needs to be more restrained and circumspect. The power he holds over foreign policy is a very large two edged sword. It can cut both ways by initiating an incident with unintended consequences: for example, the sinking of an overly aggressive Iranian patrol boat could result in an Iranian missile attack against an American Destroyer; or flying an American reconnaissance plane over a Chinese military installation in the South China Sea could be harassed by Chinese interceptors or, worse, shot down. Any ill-advised action overseas could derail the President’s domestic agenda. For instance, he has promised some significant and worthwhile changes affecting tax reform, regulatory pruning, infrastructure investments, and the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. But his recent missteps in office raise concerns about those promises. Many of his initial staffing decisions call into question the integrity and suitability of his Administration to achieve any worthwhile objectives. The President seems more intent on deconstructing the departments of government than making them more efficient or providing better service. His opinions seem un-/ill-informed (i.e., based upon ignorance or malice) on matters of fair housing, public education, healthcare, workplace conditions, equitable pay, civil rights, safe pharmaceuticals, voter fraud versus voter suppression, climate science, the art of diplomacy, the obligations inherent in international relations, and the functioning of a tripartite government in a republican democracy.

While he has given former Goldman Sachs executives control over government financial institutions and attempted to put billionaires in key cabinet positions, he has simultaneously retired all the directors on the National Security Council and the entire senior staff of the State Department. At this early stage in office, the President seems more focused on the financial sector. Obviously, we would expect him to be more comfortable wearing the mantle of a businessman. As the CEO of a privately owned company, he likely was the primary deal maker and probably the chief architect of mission and process. Maybe he even devised some, perhaps the majority, of the tactics used to achieve his overall strategies. Undoubtedly, he controlled his operational budgets and expenditures. Certainly there are areas where this business experience might be quite relevant. His proposed infrastructure program, for example, could benefit from his real estate development acumen where completing a project on-time, under budget, and according to specs is the definition of success. But there is much more required of a President. The President said recently that he is very smart and understands things “better than anybody.” Well, the first thing he needs to understand is that he is no longer a business man managing his wealth and personal brand. He is the President of the United States who took an oath to serve the interests of all Americans. Eventually, he will learn that neither he nor his immediate staff will ever be competent to know everything. He has a workforce of about two million public servants to lean on. As President, he leads all the departments and organizations that administer the laws and institutions that serve and protect the American people. We desperately need him to use and manage the resources already at his disposal.

Sometimes I sense that the President is more concerned with his image than the actual job of being President. In business, where consumer confidence in goods and services reign, branding or image is critically important. In government, success is also partly measured by public image. But that image cannot be long maintained without positive results. No amount of spin, “alternative facts” (aka, falsehoods), scapegoating, political conspiracy theories, or deflections can cover incompetence for very long. At some point he will realize that both he and his Administration interconnect with the other branches of government and work for us. Nearly everything he has to do as President depends upon the effectiveness of Federal departments and institutions, the consent of Congress, and the support of the American people. That support will be there only as long as his Administration is effective in its primary objectives—that is, to preserve our freedoms, our security, our just treatment under the law, and our diversity as “one nation under God.” Failing those objectives will result in a failed Presidency.

In conclusion, the President’s competency in the job is an issue we all hope will improve with time. But that hope depends upon his realization that the office he occupies is not his. It is ours. The power it affords him is given in trust. The only way he can deserve that trust is to bend the institutions of government to serve and protect the American people and our core values as expressed in our Constitution. So far, many of the President’s appointments and executive orders belie that trust. Only if he learns to wield power in our behalf will our new President gain the humility that power demands. When he rails against the press, judges, fellow politicians, private citizens, and individual corporations in defense of his image or business interests, he actually demeans the office. He has become the target of protests here in America and around the world because his initial actions appear aimed at satisfying poorly thought-out campaign objectives instead of the demands of the office he occupies. Most of what he has done in these first weeks of his Presidency his successor will probably have to undo. Unless he turns things around, he will not leave office with an image even he could admire.

The Presidency cannot continue to be about Donald Trump. It must be about America.

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