WASHINGTON — Anthony Scaramucci’s rollout as Donald Trump’s new communications director received mainly good reviews. He is, as any White House job in the current administration requires, a skilled sycophant. His on-air abjection — including a Sunday talk show apology for past disloyalty made directly into the camera — smacks of self-criticism during China’s Cultural Revolution. But comrade Scaramucci does have a knack for being aggressive without being angry. And he is good on TV, which means he’ll play a starring roll in Trump’s main obsession.
The president’s intention in choosing Scaramucci was clear from the announcement. “We have accomplished so much,” said Trump in his statement, “and we are being given credit for so little.” Scaramucci’s calling is to be a more effective harvester of credit.
This staff change is probably a good thing for the president. It also reveals a complete blindness about the true source of his administration’s current struggles.
Who can look at the wreck of the White House — bitterly divided, dysfunctional and hemorrhaging leaks — and think a better communications approach is the answer? Who can look at the wreck of Trump’s agenda — stymied in spite of Republican control of the House and Senate — and think the real problem is insufficient credit-taking on television? I could name half a dozen White House jobs that more urgently needed new blood — including the chief of staff — than communications director. Jobs in the press department are what the press and the president mainly see. But obvious problems are not always the most urgent.
To be fair, the idea that words are always the real problem is not unique to the Trump administration. I saw the same communications fallacy in my White House experience during George W. Bush’s presidency. It is typical for politicians and party officials to believe that the fault lies, not in themselves, but in their flacks. As head of presidential speechwriting, I heard more than my share of “if only.” If only the administration would make such-and-such a point, the Katrina mess could be put behind us. If only the president said some magic words — suggested language attached — the erosion in support for the Iraq War would be reversed. If only the president were to give 60 speeches in 60 days on Social Security reform, Americans would finally understand the problem and our plan would pass.
We actually tried that last one in 2005. The trip was carefully designed to pressure gettable Democratic senators. Bush was loose, informed and effective. And the plan never even got out of committee. We did not have a communications problem. We had a reality problem — as we did with Katrina and Iraq. In such cases, hiring a new head of speechwriting would probably not have helped.
The Trump administration’s reality problem is a historically unpopular president, pushing historically unpopular legislation (at least on health care), in a historically divided party, to a historically polarized country. Hiring a new head of communications will not fundamentally alter this state of affairs.
Words generally cannot improve facts on the ground, but they do have the power to complicate them. Part of the reason Trump is, from his perspective, “given credit for so little” is that so little has been accomplished. But another part is the insanely high expectations that Trump’s own words have created. “You’re going to have such great health care at a tiny fraction of the cost,” he promised. “It’s going to be so easy.” Tax reform benefiting the middle class would come in the first 100 days. He would build an impenetrable physical wall across the continent and “the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such a wall.” There would be a package spurring a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. Middle East peace is “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” And further: “I will give you everything” and achieve “every dream you ever dreamed for your country.”
The president would probably not be politically comfortable in fulfilling some of my dreams. But even more generally, this is what happens when a politician promises the world while knowing so little about how it actually works.
Trump’s greatest need is not someone who will defend him on cable television. It is an administration capable of even the baby steps of governing — defining a positive, realistic agenda and selling it to Congress, starting with one’s own party. Trump does not have a communications problem; he has a leadership problem.