In Barack Obama’s first term as president, many of his critics embraced a curious line of criticism. New Jersey’s Chris Christie (R) insisted in 2011, for example, that the Democrat “stop being a bystander in the Oval Office.”
It wasn’t long before other presidential detractors echoed the sentiment. Charles Krauthammer pushed the “bystander” line on Fox News, and even the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said he too saw Obama as a “bystander.”
The reproach always struck me misguided, if not bizarre, given Obama’s actual record, but it turns out the “bystander” thesis was simply too early: Donald Trump is in the White House during a government shutdown he helped create, and instead of working on a deal to resolve the problem, the Republican president is doing effectively nothing.
The Washington Post reported that Trump, at least for now, prefers a “hide-and-tweet strategy” that White House officials like because it means he won’t work on an agreement the far right disapproves of. CNN added that the president has already told congressional leaders that they should work out a deal on their own and present it to him once it’s done – as opposed to Trump taking a hands-on role in the negotiations.
And the New York Times reports that Trump has very little understanding of the current debate and is passively disinterested in getting up to speed. Worse, the article suggested the “unusually disengaged” president isn’t really in control of the White House’s role in the process.
As the government shutdown continued for its second day on Sunday, one thing was clear to both sides of the negotiations to end it: The president was either unwilling or unable to articulate the immigration policy he wanted, much less understand the nuances of what it would involve.
Both sides have reason to be confused. Each time Mr. Trump has edged toward compromise with Democrats, he has appeared to be reined in by his own staff, which shares the hawkish immigration stance that fueled his campaign. And Republican leaders, bruised by past experience with a president who has rarely offered them consistent cover on a politically challenging issue, are loath to guess at his intentions.
MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt added over the weekend that the “stunning reality” is that the president isn’t even on the same page as his own White House team.
The result is a dynamic that’s tough to defend: the amateur president, after creating the conditions that led to a government shutdown, is unnervingly comfortable playing the role of a hapless bystander as the standoff continues. After a period in which Trump welcomed and rejected a series of compromises, he’s now content to sit on the sidelines, waiting for others to find a solution to the problems he’s responsible for.
Before launching his political career in earnest, Trump talked a good game, telling the public that he knew how to prevent shutdowns, thanks to his masterful negotiating skills and passion for deal-making. We now know what was billed as Trump’s biggest strength has turned out to be one of his biggest weaknesses: the president is an inept negotiator who makes commitments he can’t honor, shifts positions with the winds, delivers contradictory messages to different people, and remains too ignorant to play a constructive role.
In his 2016 Republican convention speech, Trump declared with pride, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” He had it backwards: no one in a position of authority knows less about the system than Trump, and he alone can’t fix anything.
President Bystander, indeed.