The around-the-clock scrutiny of Donald Trump and his presidency is not going to end. But let’s not mistake Trump as unique among presidents in attracting intense public focus. Presidents have always been, and should be, at the center of public attention.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He spent 34 years in Congress and today is Distinguished Scholar in the IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
He writes periodically about Washington from the perspective of a former insider and an expert on government.
Of the presidency, he states:
“… We have high expectations for the president in this country. We want him or her to run the government efficiently and effectively, to work hard to resolve our problems, lead the world, inspire the nation, console us in times of disaster, serve as an example for young people, represent the national interest, and in a sense carry our hopes and desires for the country on his or her shoulders.”
The expectation may be unrealistic but explains why the president’s life and actions down to the smallest detail are of great public interest.
“When I was in Congress, the subject would come up whenever I was back home in the district, at formal public meetings and in casual conversations. People wanted to know about his family, his personal characteristics, his strengths and failings, and what he was doing to make the country work,” Hamilton writes.
“This fascination is exacerbated by the news media, which focuses attention on the president and much less on Congress, a body that by its nature is diffuse and complicated.”
Hamilton further points out that presidents have been both ordinary and extraordinary, all with strengths, vulnerabilities and limitations the same as all people. But nearly all of the most successful ones are unusually persuasive.
“… As unremittingly difficult as the job is, in many ways the toughest part is persuasion: trying to build support for one’s goals. We talk about the president as being the most powerful person in the world, but over the decades I’ve been struck by how often presidents talk about the limitations on their power. Looking out from the White House, what they see are opposition and constraints.”
Which, as Hamilton notes, explains why every president seeks to expand the power of the office.
“This is not all bad — presidents do need power to get things done. But this trend has diminished the role of Congress and, fundamentally, of representative government.”
Presidents in modern times don’t want to be scrutinized on policy.
And far too often, Congress has played along. … And so it’s harder to understand why the president does what he does now, why he makes the choices he does,” Hamilton writes.
“Presidents need oversight and scrutiny, they need a Congress that will press them and insist on consultation. They get very little of that pressure today. Don’t get me wrong: I favor a strong president, but I also favor a strong Congress. And these days, we have a Congress marked by passivity and inability to exercise its constitutional responsibilities.”
Thus the importance of people choosing carefully their leaders – with no vote more important than that for president.
It’s too early to judge the Trump presidency. And opinion polls at this point are no guarantor of what may happen to Trump in a re-election bid. And like or dislike Trump, he is the president and will be president for another three years.
What happens at that point will be up to Americans knowing a lot more about Trump than they did during the campaign that elevated him to the nation’s highest office.
And the choice to be made then will matter.
As Hamilton concludes: “Presidents really do make a difference in our lives. No choice as a citizen is more important.”