President-elect Trump’s Three Greatest Challenges
November 30, 2016
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There are three fundamental challenges to any effort to transform Washington.
I learned these principles from working with President Reagan on dramatic change in the 1980s and then leading the Contract with America with its deep changes (first GOP majority in 40 years, welfare reform, the only four balanced budgets in your lifetime, the largest capital gains tax cut in history, etc.)
The principles I learned working with Reagan and applied as Speaker seem to be universal for those who would enact deep, profound changes. They are:
1. The “normal” will try to convince the leader to be “reasonable”.
2. Solving symptoms feels satisfying and is an easy substitute for solving the real, underlying problems.
3. The urgent drives out the important.
Let me explain each.
First, the “normal” will try to convince the leader to be reasonable. I remember on election night of 1994 when we had won the House for the first time since 1952. At about 2:00 AM, our key supporters–people who had spent years of their life working for a Republican majority–sat around discussing the historic victory. Their number one fear was that I would go to Washington and be talked into behaving “normally.” They knew that the lobbyists, the news media, the socialites, the bureaucracy and the old order would gather together to “tame” the revolutionary reform effort of the American people.
That Friday, three days after the election, I spoke at The Heritage Foundation and shocked the Washington media by declaring, “I will cooperate but I will not compromise.” This formula was a direct attack on the Washington assumption that campaign promises are cynically made to win votes but after the election “responsible” people forget those words and get back to governing as insiders.
If we had listened to the Washington establishment, we would never have reformed welfare, balanced the budget or cut capital gains taxes.
President-elect Trump should get up every day and begin by looking at his own campaign promises. He owes his presidency to the people who believed in him, not to the courtiers and schmoozers who had contempt for him as candidate but adore him now that he is going to be president.
“Reasonableness” will be the death of Trumpism. The very essence of the Trump candidacy was a willingness to set out new policies, new goals, and new toughness that was “unreasonable” to Washington but made perfect sense to millions of Americans. President Trump should “unreasonably” insist on draining the swamp and changing policies. This is why he was elected.
Second, there will be so many symptoms of problems that a president could satisfyingly spend every day focusing on little problems that require little solutions. While that approach will yield many small satisfactions, however, it will not produce the profound changes that are needed. Peter Drucker warned of this tendency to allow surface symptoms to attract our attention. In The Effective Executive (a book every Trump appointee should be required to read), Drucker wrote that great leaders look below the symptom to find the real problem. Getting rid of one bad bureaucrat may be satisfying, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Other bad bureaucrats will show up. Overhauling the bureaucracy so that it quits producing bad bureaucrats and starts producing good civil servants is a reform that could last a lifetime.
President-elect Trump and his senior team have to acquire the habit of asking of every situation “Is this a symptom, or a problem?” If it is symptom, they must take some time to look for the real underlying problem. When they solve that problem they will have solved orders of magnitude more symptoms.
Third, Washington is a city in which the urgent drives out the important. Senator Jesse Helms first taught me this. He saw me on the street one day early in my career and said, “Young man, remember that this is a city in which the urgent drives out the important. Your job is to get up every morning, place the important at the center of your desk, and work on it until the urgent overwhelms it.”
As I thought about Helms’s rule and watched President Reagan, I realized he had developed an antelope-and-chipmunk theory of leading.
Lions know that they cannot afford to hunt chipmunks because even if they capture them, they will starve to death.
Lions have to hunt antelopes and zebras.
President Reagan was a lion. He wanted to accomplish big things. He knew that meant he could not get bogged down by tiny problems (chipmunks).
President Reagan got up every morning and reminded himself of his three antelopes: defeat the Soviet Union, grow the American economy, and renew American civic culture so we would be proud to be American again.
When President Reagan entered the oval office, chipmunks would come running in. Some federal chipmunks can be $10 billion or more. Reagan would listen patiently and say “You are a fine chipmunk! Have you met my chief of staff?” Jim Baker became the largest chipmunk collector in the world.
President-elect Trump has to pick between three and five antelope he wants to hunt. He should focus on them relentlessly.
He should work out with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior strategist Steve Bannon how they are going to divide up the chipmunks.
Only with a system like this can the new president avoid having the urgent and the trivial overwhelm his ability to focus on the essential changes that will make his presidency historic.
Developing Trumpism as a governing system is going to be an enormous job.
Moving America from decay to dynamic growth is going to be an enormous job.
Draining the swamp in Washington is going to be an enormous job.
President Reagan proved it could be done.
These three principles will help get it done.
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