It’s not exactly controversial to note that, when it comes to health-care policy, the president of the United States doesn’t know his ear from his elbow. His comment last month that “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated!” was, by Trumpian standards, an impressively frank admission of ignorance—not merely of the U.S. health care system itself, but of several decades of political attempts to tame the beast.
Nor is the famously scattered Trump much known for hunkering down and engaging in the legislative give-and-take necessary to move a complex bill through Congress. Trump fancies himself a primo negotiator but not that kind of negotiator. In his administration, such grunt work is left to aides and advisers. After all, why waste a perfectly good weekend talking policy provisions with Ted Cruz when he could be doing something more fun like—well, pretty much anything?
Trump has vanishingly little interest in the details—or even really the substance—of the policy product he is selling. What tickles this president’s fancy is making the actual sale. Salesmanship (of a sort) is what got him to the Oval Office, and it’s clearly what he regards as his chief mission now that he’s there. In many ways, that is exactly as it should be.
Whatever his personal thoughts on Ryancare (assuming he has any), Trump has spent the past couple of weeks hawking the plan with gusto. On numerous occasions he has sat down with GOP critics of the proposal—one-on-one, in groups, at the White House, on the Hill, at Mar-a-Lago—to do some combination of ego stroking and arm twisting. Monday night, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a massive pep rally for the proposal in Kentucky, the home state of Ryancare’s chief Senate hater, Rand Paul.
Trump is not subtle with his political threats. At a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Tuesday, he predicted that a failure to pass Ryancare would bring doom in the midterm elections. “I believe many of you will lose in 2018,” he reportedly warned. “Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks.”
Trump even singled out Mark Meadows, the chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, many of whose members oppose Ryancare. Stand in the way of this overhaul, Trump ribbed Meadows, and “I’m coming after you.”
Say this for 45: If there’s one thing he relishes, it’s making life uncomfortable for anyone who thwarts his will.
This is a crucial skill for a president. Brains, heart, vision—these qualities are all well and good. But if a leader is a lousy salesman, he’s going to have a tough time getting anything done. And even when he does make progress, unless he can convince the electorate of the rightness of that progress, he’ll suffer massive—potentially fatal—blowback.
Just ask Trump’s predecessor. Barack Obama had many fine gifts, but even he acknowledged that he kinda stunk at hawking his agenda, to either the public or the Congress. His bone-deep aversion to schmoozing—with political friends and enemies alike—became a topic of endless criticism. Journalistic eminence Bob Woodward rarely missed an opportunity to smack Obama for not inviting Republican leaders over for a beer or a smoke or a fun-filled movie night.
Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, Obama radiated distaste for the dirty, messy nature of politics. Oh, sure, now and again he would try to whip up public support for a plan—or invite a handful of lawmakers over to watch the Super Bowl. But overwhelmingly he strove to stay above the fray and wasted little to no effort on cultivating relationships with members of Congress.
This had its obvious downsides. When, for instance, the Republican Party set its sights on convincing the American people that Obamacare was the root of all evil, Obama wasn’t really built to defend himself or his signature achievement. That’s just not the kind of president he was.
Trump, by contrast, does not seem to care a fig about ideas. And he is really only happy when up to his comb-over in the political fray, punching and counterpunching and firing up his fans. He is also said to be quite the charmer in private. (No sexual predation jokes, please.) Already he has been inviting tough critics from both sides of the aisle over for tete-a-tetes. He even hosted Ted Cruz’s family for dinner earlier this month.
Convincing other people to accept his position, whether by charm or intimidation, is what drives Trump. Which suggests he will use his bully pulpit and salesmanship skills to a degree unseen in a president, perhaps ever.
Of course, this approach comes with its own risks. With Trump evincing so little interest in the content of what he is selling, what happens not when he fails, but when he successfully sells a big fat lemon to the American people? If it doesn’t happen on health care, it could happen on tax reform or infrastructure or trade or, if Paul Ryan has his way, entitlement changes.
Maybe Trump is counting on some mix of his gut instincts and the savvy of his inner circle to save him from such a fate. Or maybe he figures that, if his achievements prove unpopular, he can simply use his sales flair to deflect the blame onto Democrats or CNN or Paul Ryan.
But that is a dilemma for another day. For now, Trump is employing his particular skill set to try to help his team realize its tricky 7-year quest to kill Obamacare. Win or lose, you gotta give the guy props for trying.