Congress’ critical role

When Donald Trump takes the oath of office just under two months from now, the Office of President of the United States will enter a new era—one that will thrust it into territory unfamiliar to most of us.
In the 25 years or so between the end of Andrew Jackson’s second term and the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s first, the presidency assumed a largely ceremonial role. Sure there were a number of notable decisions that presidents in this time period were forced to make, but political historians rarely hark back to the days of John Tyler or Millard Fillmore. Rather, it was the Congress that was the driving force behind a great deal of the political change in the mid-19th century. While President-elect Trump will be far more visible than any 19th century president, particularly given his fondness for attention—read: Twitter—his lack of a firm grasp on the fundamental issues facing the country should give rise to a far more influential Congress and the Cabinet being far more influential than they have been in recent years.
In particular, Vice President-elect Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will wield significant influence over the direction of the Trump administration. Mr. Trump has already demonstrated that he intends to work alongside GOP establishment leaders rather than spurn them as he repeatedly promised to do during his campaign. In naming Reince Priebus, one of Speaker Ryan’s closest allies and friends as his Chief of Staff and Elaine Chao, Senator McConnell’s wife, as his Secretary of Transportation, he has already begun to “surround himself with [people who] are going to be doing a lot of the day-to-day lifting,” in the words of Senate Majority Whip John Coryn.
It follows, then, that President Trump will leave the burden of actually governing—that is, the job of President—to his subordinates while he focuses on continuing to galvanize the base that elected him in the first place. Thus, the inflammatory rhetoric that was the hallmark of his campaign will continue, and his derogatory comments towards women, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, the media, and a bevy of other groups will further polarize the political landscape. However, these sentiments may often remain absent from his administration’s actual policy proposals, and we have already seen evidence of this.
In the past two weeks alone, the President-elect has largely ignored his election night plea for national unity by castigating The New York Times for treating him “extremely unfairly,” calling out CNN for “their total (100 percent) support of Hillary Clinton,” and insisting that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Yet, most of the people Mr. Trump has nominated for positions in his Cabinet are seasoned GOP politicians with standard conservative viewpoints and impressive experience. Nikki Haley, up for Ambassador to the United Nations, has been South Carolina’s Governor since 2011; Jeff Sessions, the incoming Attorney General, has been a Senator from Alabama since 1997; Mitt Romney, formerly the Governor of Massachusetts and GOP presidential nominee, seems to be squarely in the mix to be the next Secretary of State.
To those on the left, including the majority of students at Swarthmore, this dichotomy may offer a very minor source of comfort. Many of my own professors and peers have indicated that they believe Trump’s presidency will harm citizens’ perception and trust of the government more than it will lead to a crippling of America’s governmental system. Perhaps Trump’s presidency will be defined by the Republican Party’s continuous battle against government-sponsored welfare programs and calls for a stronger, more powerful military. Although these beliefs are generally in opposition to the progressive policies that many Swatties favor, this scenario ends much better than one that includes a racist, xenophobic government hell-bent on making America a place where only a small group of people feel that they are welcome and included.
As we enter one of the most uncertain phases in American political history, one certainty is that Donald Trump will fundamentally alter how the office of President is perceived by the American public and, indeed, by the world. As a divisive figure who prides himself on being an outsider, he will continue to sow the seeds of division within the public, yet his administration’s policies may not necessarily follow suit. The degree to which Mr. Trump succeeds in “making America great again,” is largely dependent on the strength and competence of the Congress and his Cabinet. If Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the like are able to tone down his rhetoric and govern reasonably, the next four years may be no worse than any other Republican presidency, and Trump may end up being nothing more than a figurehead.

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