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Five “First” Lessons President-elect Trump Will Begin to Learn, Starting His First Day

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The first president I ever voted for was John F. Kennedy in 1960. So I, like so many Americans, have seen quite a few presidents come and go. Just based on those observations, and having served time in government some years ago, there are things about incoming presidents and other senior government officials, such as governors, that are useful to remember through all of the hype and hoopla of the inauguration and our new president beginning to work daily to “make America great again.” It’s going to be a truly tough challenge. Here are some lessons to think about from the past.

1.    America will survive. America is more than likely going to survive the next presidency, however long it lasts. As for the President’s 44 predecessors, only a handful were notable in our history. The other “placeholder presidents” weren’t, but failed to seriously disrupt or damage our country in meaningful, memorable or permanent ways. The odds seem to be that, in the light of history, Mr. Trump is more likely to be a “placeholder president.”

2.    While the new president transitions in, the government is busy organizing to facilitate, as well as frustrate, any initiatives he chooses to propose, impose, command or order. The major goal of any bureaucracy, and a matter of extraordinary reassurance to most Americans, is that bureaucracy’s number one purpose is to seek continuity, consistency, calmness, deliberation and structured incremental implementation… or death to new ideas. The practical description is called friction. It’s a good thing.

3.    His first day in office is going to be much different than he imagines. Once he returns to the oval office after the inauguration and looks out the window, he’ll say to himself, “What the hell do I do now?”. The phone will ring, or it will have already rung, and something nobody could have anticipated will occupy his opening moments as president. Happens to everyone.

4.    Government is not a business. The President-elect and many of those he appointed who are not from government, will find this out daily. No government agency – federal, state, city, county, township – is a business and they do not want to become one.

Theoretically at least, the difference between business and government is that business can take action very promptly. Government is slow, complicated and change resistant.

Business likes to act in smart ways. In fact, most business people, especially those from management schools, consider themselves to be smart, competent, even invincible.

These are qualities government rarely looks for, nor admires. Virtually all decisions are made by groups rather than individuals, often with great contention and second guessing by insiders and outsiders. This is why government results are often far less than that which was originally requested, but still adequate enough to get some things started, maintained or intentionally stopped.

5.    The goal of government is opposite of the goal of business. Business tries to be smart, prompt, efficient, effective and profitable. The government that Mr. Trump is about to lead exists solely to serve people’s needs. The main goal of millions of federal employees is that every day generally works just like the day before. It’s only the politicians who keep talking a lot about tomorrow because no one can actually dispute or refute anything they say. Meanwhile, the democracy is working to make tomorrow look just like yesterday. In the race between the bureaucracy, governing bodies and leadership, I think the better bet is always on the bureaucracy.

  • Fran Onofrio

    Thanks for putting today’s performance in perspective Jim. Many of us watched Mr. Trump;s press conference in amazement. And i could not help wondering if he realizes that he will no longer be running a for-profit company with a “do-as-I-say” culture. Further, the way he treated some reporters was childlike. Not to mention his allegations against other countries.

  • Excellent points Jim. And Fran, I agree, but the interesting things is that the media assumes he will be “presidential” when in fact all he knows how to be is a celebrity and a businessman. It will be interesting to see how/if he adapts.

  • madonna vancleve

    I have, quite honestly, never heard the pronoun “I” so often in one speech.

  • James E. Lukaszewski

    The history of business people who failed at government service is a long one. Business people have no concept of how government really works, they just like to rattle on about what seems to them to be bad and wasteful practices and customs. The first rule of political and bureaucratic survival is to prevent or at least stop the needless production of critics and enemies.
    These people and groups live forever and once injured or wounded will devote tremendous energy, day and night, to getting even or at least relentlessly bleeding all over the perpetrator. The prime directive (genetic necessity) for any organization, especially a bureaucracy, is to begin to resist and to teach itself how to defeat the “forces of tomorrow.” Bureaucracies always love yesterday more than anything.
    Not to worry. Every day the “forces of yesterday” get better and better at bleeding and defeating

  • Paula Symons

    This man is vile, disgusting and loathsome. Much as I would like to think he will get a wake-up call as to the realities of government – which, indeed, is not a business – I believe he won’t change and nothing he does will get him removed from office. He’s so far managed to dodge all blame involving his many scandals, shady business practices and absolutely outrageous statements, made either publicly or hiding behind a Twitter feed. Hopefully, he will wind up being a placeholder president and just a bad memory for the American people.

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