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It’s Easy To Rail Against Big Government—Until There’s a Big Crisis

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President Donald Trump speaks on the phone from Air Force One. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone from Air Force One. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Amid all the uncertainties in President Trump’s tumultuous presidency, there is one subtle certainty. At some point—maybe next year, next month, next week, or in the next hour—the country will face a major crisis. It might be a hurricane, an earthquake, a devastating cyberattack, or a terrorist assault. But something big will happen. It will require a strong government response—big government, in what’s sure to be a big day. And it will pose one of the biggest challenges to the Trump presidency.

Trump might be shy of major legislative accomplishments, but he’s radically redefined the presidency, the White House’s relationships with the media, and the inescapable power of Twitter. They all have one thing in common. So far, the Trump presidency has been uncommonly focused on slashing and attacking, cutting away at the things the president does not like, especially if it has the Obama brand on it.

It’s been a presidency of assault—an assault on fake news, failing media companies, traditional press briefings, the deep state, the administrative state, job-killing regulations, the swamp, and the very core of the last 50 years of American government. There’s been an absolute blizzard of executive orders, fired out of the West Wing at a faster pace than any president since Harry S Truman. There are plans to slash EPA and the State Department. All the big initiatives save one—infrastructure—focus on tearing down the government we’ve known for the last two generations (and the infrastructure plan has yet to get wheels).

Trump clearly doesn’t like the government he was elected to lead, and he’s been in no hurry to appoint executives to lead it. By this point of his presidency, Barack Obama had four times as many appointees in place. George W. Bush had three times as many. Just four cabinet departments have deputy secretaries, the critically important people who actually run the place—and four departments don’t even have nominees yet.

But sooner or later, Trump is going to need the government. Something will happen, and people will turn to the president and ask, “How are you going to solve this problem?” Turning off the cameras in the White House press room won’t stop the questions.

Sooner or later, Trump will have to pivot to being for government, in some form, or he will suffer catastrophe. Both Obama and Bush learned the hard way that failure to effectively manage the levers of government can be politically crippling. Obama barely clawed his way back from the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act website. And Bush never recovered from the clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina.

There’s a nasty nest of questions here. No president in memory has been better at short-form rhetoric. Will Trump be able to reassure the people if he needs to reach past 140 characters or a single speech?

Does he know which levers to pull and which buttons to push when he needs to make government work? Even more important, will his White House team be able to put the sniping and maneuvering aside long enough to direct the federal apparatus, to help the chief executive act as chief executive?

His best hope will lie in the career civil service, an able, and remarkably motivated group of people who go to work every day and get government’s work done. But this career service is under unprecedented assault, facing large but undefined downsizing and buyouts along with enormous proposed budget cuts. At some point, Trump is certain to need the very government he’s trying to cut, all the more because without his own team in place it’s going to be all he’s got, especially as his West Wing staff struggles to become an effective coordinating mechanism for the executive branch.

When that day comes—and it surely will—can Trump embrace a positive role for government? Is the permanent government prepared to embrace him?

On his Double Fantasy album, the great philosopher John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Trump has been busy making lots of plans. But none seem to include plans for what, in the end, might prove most important to him, his presidency, and the American people. At some point, he’s going to need what he’s most neglecting.

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. He is the author of many books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America's Lost Commitment to Competence, The Politics of the Administrative Process, System Under Stress and The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is a two-time recipient of the Louis Brownlow Book Award of the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2008, he won the American Political Science’s John Gaus Award for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has held appointments at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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