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Has an American President Ever Been Worse at Politics?

If Trump had been just 10 percent more competent, he might not have lost the White House.

Al Drago/Getty Images

Unless he overthrows the republic in the next 23 days, President Trump carried out his last two major official acts over the past week. There will probably be a last-minute fusillade of pardons for friends, family members, allies, and perhaps even himself. His subordinates will rush through federal regulatory changes and try to entrench other policy changes. Maybe he will even sign an executive order or two. But in the broad strokes of governance, Trump’s presidency is effectively over.

The first of those two acts was Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Wednesday, which will almost certainly be overridden by Congress in the next few days. The second, which came on Sunday evening, was his belated decision to sign the omnibus stimulus bill passed by Congress last Monday. His approval came five days after a last-minute veto threat unless lawmakers upped the direct payments to Americans from $600 to $2,000 and removed “wasteful and unnecessary items”; his gambit failed. It’s the perfect coda to a presidency that will end, in part, because of Trump’s self-destructive approach to legislative relations. He may well go down in history as the worst politician ever to occupy the White House.

Consider what exactly led him to veto the NDAA, the annual budget-ish bill that funds the military. In the months before the House and Senate passed the bill by veto-proof margins, Trump repeatedly cited two sticking points in tweets and public remarks. One of them was a legislative effort to rename U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals, including Forts Benning, Bragg, Hood, and Hill. The measure drew bipartisan support for a very simple reason: It makes no sense to name American military installations after traitors who fought and killed American soldiers on behalf of a slaver aristocracy.

Trump disagrees. “Over the course of United States history, these locations have taken on significance to the American story and those who have helped write it that far transcends their namesakes,” he wrote in his veto statement. “My Administration respects the legacy of the millions of American servicemen and women who have served with honor at these military bases, and who, from these locations, have fought, bled, and died for their country.  From these facilities, we have won two World Wars.” Many factors led to the Allied victory in World War II; the names of military bases are not among them. But this justification sounds better than Trump’s instinctive need to glorify the symbols and key figures of American white supremacy on the merits, so it’s understandable that the White House went with something ridiculous.

Military base names, at least, are vaguely relevant to Department of Defense funding. Trump’s second sticking point made even less sense. “Your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230 will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step,” Trump wrote in his veto statement. Section 230, in reality, has nothing to do with national security. It’s a provision in federal law that holds that internet providers and website owners aren’t generally liable for third-party content on their websites. In other words, if somebody writes something defamatory about you in a Facebook post, you can’t sue Facebook for libel.

Right-wing conversations about Section 230 are often detached from the reality of what the provision actually does. For all the fretting about cancel culture and online censorship by Silicon Valley in conservative circles, Section 230 is only loosely connected to their fears. (Ironically, scrapping the provision could make Big Tech even more censorious to avoid litigation.) All of this matters little to Trump, who offsets his lack of policy knowledge and lack of intellectual curiosity with sheer bravado. He blames Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google for all manner of political problems, and he relishes the idea of punishing them in some way. Even among GOP lawmakers who share those views, however, it’s not worth holding up paychecks for soldiers.

Trump spent most of his adult life building a public image as a master dealmaker. In reality, he brought himself and the Trump Organization to the brink of financial ruin throughout the 1990s. But he managed to parlay that image into a popular reality TV show, which stabilized his family business in the 2000s and then into a successful presidential run. His presidency exposed how his much vaunted dealmaking skills amounted to little more than hostage-taking. He makes threats from positions of weakness and declines to capitalize on advantages. He reneges on deals struck with friends and foes alike, leading Congress and his own Cabinet to largely bypass him for budgetary negotiations. He prioritizes symbolic stands over substantive accomplishments. And he dwells on personal problems like his impending loss of power over the common good.

The irony here is that Trump wouldn’t need to worry about clinging onto power so much if he’d exercised just a smidge more self-control before the election. The Cares Act, which sent a $1,200 check to most Americans earlier this year and boosted state unemployment insurance programs, may have been one of the most successful relief measures in the history of the republic. Economic hardship is hard to reduce to a single statistic, of course, but it’s worth noting that the nation’s poverty rate actually fell in April and May thanks to the Cares Act even as the American economy partially collapsed. Those relief measures, combined with geographic disparities and hyper-polarization, likely prevented a Biden landslide in the November elections.

So how did Trump handle negotiations over a second round of stimulus this fall before the election? He torpedoed talks between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a fit of pique in October, apparently hoping voters would blame the Democrats for the failure. Though he backtracked a few days later, the outburst all but guaranteed that another round of stimulus—and hefty checks from Uncle Sam—wouldn’t be sent to voters before Election Day. Of all Trump’s policy decisions, this may have been the most disastrous. He ran as a populist who would protect entitlements and help the “forgotten man,” then threw his political capital behind a tax-cut bill for his rich friends and turned down a once-in-a-generation chance to improve millions of Americans’ lives. He campaigned as Huey Long but governed as Paul Ryan, and he may have lost the White House because of it.

All of those forces came to a head on Tuesday evening last week, one day after Congress passed the stimulus bill and many lawmakers went home. Trump made a surprise announcement on Twitter that he wanted the $600 checks in the bill raised to $2,000 along with other vague changes. “I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a covid relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” he proclaimed. Pelosi hastily arranged a unanimous consent vote for Wednesday, but it was blocked by House Republicans, who generally oppose distributing tax dollars to non-wealthy Americans.

With no such changes coming, Trump had painted himself into a corner. He could follow through on his threat to veto the bill, of course. But that would create a spiraling series of consequences: The federal government would shut down, Americans wouldn’t receive the lesser stimulus measures at all, and worst of all, he would bear sole responsibility for it. But backing away from his vague threat would be an embarrassing retreat for a man obsessed with his self-image as a dealmaker. It would be a tacit admission, as during the 2019 shutdown, that he lacks enough humility and impulse control to lead the federal government.

Despite his climbdown on Sunday, the president still tried to squeeze a moral victory out of a substantive defeat. He boasted that the House would vote on Monday to increase the individual payments to $2,000 without mentioning that the Republican-held Senate is virtually guaranteed to reject the move. “Additionally, Congress has promised that Section 230, which so unfairly benefits Big Tech at the expense of the American people, will be reviewed and either be terminated or substantially reformed,” Trump claimed in a Sunday night statement. “Likewise, the House and Senate have agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election.” Congress, in its infinite majesty, can “review” Section 230 and “focus strongly” on Trump’s voter-fraud lies until the sun burns out without actually doing a single thing.

Trump’s presidency will be a wellspring of what-if scenarios for decades to come. What if he were able to forge a productive relationship with Congress despite his personal disgust for Democratic leaders? What if he had the perceptiveness to break from GOP orthodoxy on economic matters when it really counted? What if he were able to suppress his hunger for the public spotlight, his favoring of spectacle over substance, and his all-consuming self-absorption? What if he were just 10 percent more competent? The answer seems pretty clear after the last seven days: He wouldn’t be leaving the White House next month.