Shribman: Who will Trump be as president?

David Shribman

In the days leading to his inauguration, Donald J. Trump almost certainly has not paused to consider the presidency of James K. Polk, who occupied the White House from 1845 to 1849. But there is an element of the 11th president in the 45th president, especially in the Tennessean’s remark that “I intend to be myself president of the U.S.”

For no one doubts that Trump intends to be himself as president of the United States. But the question remains whether Trump will conform to public expectations of the presidency or whether his supporters expect that he will alter expectations of the office.

Those presidential expectations change over time. The presidency of the three Republican chief executives of the 1920s — modest, passive, for the most part quiet — was a far different office from the presidency of the two Democratic leaders of the 1960s, when the White House first emerged as the center of celebrity and the command post of a muscular bureaucracy that even Franklin Delano Roosevelt never dared contemplate.

If Polk was the last strong president of pre-Civil War America, might Mr. Trump emerge as a strong president in the Polk image? Perhaps, though the pattern — Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan — tends to put strong presidents directly following weaker ones, a pattern that the presidential historian Stephen Skowronek points out also extends to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and to James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.

But that begs two questions: How will history judge Barack Obama? (Trump and other Republicans have spent the last several months arguing that Obama was too strong a president, extending executive power beyond constitutional bounds.)

And in a living, breathing institution such as the American presidency, must do patterns necessarily repeat themselves?

Plus this: Nothing Trump has done, either in his campaign or in his presidential transition, has conformed to any pattern, or even any established logic, and that has been the secret to his success.

This has come into recent focus because, during a 73-day transition period that ordinarily would be regarded as a period of reconciliation and reflection there has been unusual contention. There is, for example, no precedent for Trump’s late December public intervention in the United Nations Security Council vote on Israel’s settlements.

Indeed, while Trump itched to be involved in the Israel matter, the greatest example of transition frission came from an earlier president-elect’s fervent desire not to be involved in his predecessor’s initiatives.

This came in the days leading up to Christmas in 1932, when incumbent President Herbert Hoover asked Gov. Franklin Roosevelt to join him in Depression-era matters involving World War I debts owed to the United States. The Roosevelt answer, delivered in a letter to the White House, was stark and clear:

“I think you will recognize that it would be unwise for me to accept an apparent joint responsibility with you when, as a matter of constitutional fact, I would be wholly lacking in any attendant authority.”

In the case of Trump and Obama, as in the case of the 31st and 32nd presidents — one an engineer from Iowa whose presidential run was his first political campaign, the other a career politician from New York who had run for the state senate, vice president and, twice, for governor and had addressed national political conventions three times before his own presidential nomination — the principals have very little in common.

And yet the two men — Trump and Obama — faced the same question: whether in their presidencies to be the same as their predecessors or to be different from them.

In a decade or so Trump will be one of the pictures in other people’s heads. It’s up to him whether, in forming that picture, he looks in the mirror — or to the past.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.