Why Trump Appointees Will Be Effective, for Better or Worse

The most striking feature of many of the selections is their relative lack of experience in traditional politics.

It’s natural to evaluate Donald Trump’s appointments by whether we agree with the stances of the appointees. But it’s also worth asking how effective an administration those picks will produce.

The most striking feature of many of the selections is their relative lack of experience in traditional politics. There are a lot of ex-generals and a high number with corporate backgrounds, including from the energy sector. Wall Street is well represented, with three people who have worked at Goldman Sachs, among others. President Barack Obama’s picks had stronger educational credentials.

But are those bugs or features for Trump? I think they’re features -- signs we will be in for an active four years.

In addition to expertise, an appointee may be picked for some of these reasons:

  • Ability to command the interest of the public in policy change
  • Ability to influence Congress
  • Ability to think outside the usual Washington “boxes”
  • Ability to reach and motivate the president when necessary

The unusual backgrounds of many Trump appointees make more sense by these standards. For instance, Trump does not seem to be detail focused or policy oriented, as Obama has been. It’s therefore more important that he can rely on advisers to direct his attention. That means nominating candidates who have credibility with him and who can speak his language, rather than eggheads. Those same individuals might be relatively effective taking their cases to the broader public, even if they don’t have experience working the levers of Washington.

It’s not hard to imagine a Trump presidency where the agencies and departments are run more as autonomous fiefs than is usually the case, with the heads making their own appointments and driving their own agendas. That could be a recipe for a small number of major reform breakthroughs from Trump subordinates, and a larger number of stymied failures. Public opinion doesn’t usually defeat the process-oriented constraints of the Washington establishment, but occasionally it does, as for instance when anti-AIDS drugs were rushed through the regulatory process, or when politicians in the 1970s took the case for airline deregulation to the American public and brought about the rare abolition of a Washington bureaucracy, the Civil Aeronautics Board.

If the political default is not much change in the first place, introducing more variance into the policy process may shake up at least some parts of the status quo. There will be plenty of gaffes, dead ends and policy embarrassments along the way, but don’t confuse those with a lack of results. An incoming administration that does not mind embarrassment is a bit like a sports opponent who has little to lose. It is easy enough to say that neurosurgeon Ben Carson is unqualified to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it would be a mistake to dismiss his potential influence.

Or consider some of the names that have been floated as future Trump selections. Lawrence Kudlow (disclosure: a former colleague of mine), a contender to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, has been criticized for lacking the academic background of his recent predecessors. But he is good at straight talk and has extensive television experience. Given that a lot of the economic truths relevant for policy are pretty simple, his background might make him more effective than a better-credentialed academic.

One rumor is that Sylvester Stallone has been discussed in conjunction with chairing the National Endowment for the Arts. That suggestion might meet with mockery in some quarters, but Stallone’s ability to draw attention to the agency and its mission might prove more important than whatever shortcomings he would bring to the job. (Stallone has experience as a screenwriter, director and painter in addition to being an actor, so he also has some real qualifications.)

Under one model of the federal government, narrowly defined administrative competence is most required at the all-important departments of Treasury, State, and Defense, and arguably the Trump picks for those areas are consistent with that view. (They are Steven Mnuchin, a financier, Rex Tillerson, a corporate executive and James Mattis, a military man, respectively.) For many of the other picks, there's a case for taking more chances.

I’m not suggesting you should agree with the Trump agenda (whatever that might turn out to be), and I am especially worried about his selection of Michael Flynn as national security adviser. But I interpret Trump’s nominations as a sign of an intelligent and strategic process, and his choices may prove surprisingly effective in getting things done. Whether you like it or not.