In many ways President-elect Trump is exactly the guy he was when he was candidate Trump. He remains obsessed with real or perceived slights — using twitter to lash out at those who he dissed or dismissed him. He is infatuated with how the press covers him and yet has set the record in modern era for days he’s gone without holding a post election press conference.
But, when it comes to what he actually DOES as president — namely who he hires and doesn’t — Trump is less A.D.D. than his Twitter tirades would have you believe. In fact, if personnel is policy, most of Trump’s cabinet picks suggest he’ll govern more like a traditional, conservative Republican than a populist, big government or anti-establishment GOPer. Yes, senior advisor Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, his pick for National Security Advisor, are controversial and potential bomb-throwers. But, the rest of his choice thus far are for more conventional. In fact, his cabinet picks thus far don't look a whole lot different from those a President Ted Cruz would have chosen.
His pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is best known for her work in Michigan in expanding school choice and private school vouchers. She gets low marks from teacher’s unions but high marks from establishment GOPers. Even Jeb! Bush — not exactly a fan of the billionaire PEOTUS, praised DeVos as “an outstanding pick.” Her husband, Dick DeVos, is well known in the state for pushing anti-labor union right to work policies.
Trump has picked one of Obamacare’s biggest critics to run HHS, calling Rep. Tom Price “exceptionally qualified to shepherd our commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare.” This was also a nice olive branch/reward to House GOPers who have voted about a hundred times to repeal President Obama’s signature law. His picks for Treasury and Commerce, Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, are creatures of Wall Street. Yet, Mnuchin’s call for the “largest tax change since Reagan” and commitment to “strip back part of Dodd-Frank” may temper any GOP angst about picking two denizens of the “swamp” to lead financial policy. Trump’s pick for the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao, the Labor Secretary under George W. Bush, is about as establishment as they come. But, it was a savvy move for Trump to put the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a cabinet position, especially if she’s going to be in charge of selling an expensive infrastructure plan to a penny-pinching Congress.
The notoriously thin-skinned candidate has also shown a willingness to embrace those who weren’t loyal to him during the campaign. Mitt Romney is the most obvious of the outliers, but he’s also brought on board other high profile Republicans who have: openly criticized him (Gov. Nikki Haley), spent money against him in the primary (Treasury undersecretary nominee Todd Ricketts’ family who went on to raise money for Trump in the general election) or didn’t engage with him much at all (DeVos).
For a guy who spent the campaign in a kind of ideological fluidity, he’s put together a “dream team” on the Cabinet for conservative and mainstream Republicans who have long pined for lower taxes, school choice/private school vouchers, an end to Obamacare and a dismantling of Dodd-Frank.
These picks, of course, will not exactly help him win friends among Democrats in Congress. For example, the showdown between the zealously anti-Wall Street Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mnunchin will be “most see” TV. Moreover, despite his pledge on election night to unite the country and bind its wounds, his cabinet picks send the opposite message. In fact, I would bet that were the tables turned and Clinton picked a cabinet as liberal as Trump’s is conservative that there’d be a great cry from the right and even in the media about why Clinton wasn’t doing more to “reach out” to the GOP.
So, will any of these picks ultimately matter? Quick, name more than three people in President Obama’s current cabinet. You couldn’t do it could you? Now, ask people in an airport if they can name even one. Bet that fell flat, right? The reality is that the president, not the cabinet, is the face of the executive branch. The president, not the cabinet, sets the tone, the direction and the priorities. The cabinet secretaries are there to implement, not originate policy. Of course, we’ve never had a president quite like Trump. Will the notoriously detail averse candidate choose to outsource policy to his cabinet? Will he let them roam free or hold the leash tightly? We will find out in these coming months.
We are very early into the Trump era. So, we should be careful not to over-interpret his transition effort. However, it’s also important for us to focus on what Trump is DOING instead of what he’s TWEETING. And, based on what he’s doing, he’s putting together a team around him that will unite Republicans, but will do little to unite the country.