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.