I have gone quiet for awhile. It seems like everything I could say has been said by the various talking heads throughout the 24-hour news cycle. And my work responsibilities have prevented me from having much time to write, here or elsewhere. But a few thoughts might be appropriate here on Inauguration Day.
I never voted for Barack Obama. I believed John McCain and Mitt Romney to be better suited to the presidency, and I had too many disagreements with Obama on substance. But I never understood why Republicans treated him with such disdain and disrespect. I attribute most of that to the bare-knuckle, zero-sum game of American politics in which every member of the opposing party must be painted, characterized, demonized, and rejected. I think very little of that brand of politics, and regret that it dominates so much of American life today. I also think President Obama did little to endear himself to Republicans, especially in the early years when the Blame Bush strategy seemed to be stamped to his team’s every move. Still, President Obama was an elegant, thoughtful, intelligent man who brought his own brand of gravitas to the office. I agreed with him at times; disagreed more often. But he tackled difficult moments with grace and understanding, and demonstrated respect for his office and his role in American life. In turn, he has earned the respect and gratitude of Americans, even those of us who questioned and criticized him at times.
I am hopeful that President Trump will embrace the constitutional presidency, even more strongly than did his predecessor. Day One did not raise my confidence in that. His uninspiring inaugural address made no mention – not one – of the Constitution, or even of the Congress (constitutional references were a regular practice among early inaugural addresses, but have been largely abandoned by contemporary chief executives). “America First” is a catchy campaign slogan but it is not a policy. More importantly, it conveys no relationship of the president to his place in our system of constitutional government, nor does it convey anything about the role of constitutional government in securing liberty, justice, and tolerable order for the American people to whom the President pledged his loyalty. He said his oath was an oath of allegiance to all Americans, but neglected to note that it is chiefly an oath of fidelity to the Constitution. The address was not memorable, at least not for the right reasons.
The most important thing that happened on November 8 was not the election of Donald Trump, important as that was. Rather, it was the election of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The President’s pre-inaugural actions, including his cabinet choices, would perhaps have looked much different if Democrats had won one or both chambers. The burden is now on congressional Republicans to assert the prerogatives of their respective institutions, rather than serve as errand boys for the President. Standing up to the President will be much easier if the President’s approval numbers remain low. Their challenge will be to defend their own institutional roles even if the President becomes more popular. The meaning of the Constitution does not change with the President’s poll numbers.
President Trump has the chance to deploy his notorious private charm in service of the presidency’s soft powers, persuading allies and adversaries alike. That can be useful. But he should not confuse the soft powers of the office with the hard ones, those set forth in the formal arrangements of the Constitution. And it is his fidelity to those arrangements – rather than his Party affiliation – that conservative constitutionalists, and congressional Republicans, should be giving their attention.