Elected officials have two different ways of operating: campaign mode, and governing mode. So far, we have only seen Donald Trump campaigning. It would be interesting to see how Trump, whose campaigning ability is undeniable, would lead the country if he ever manages to reorient himself to governing.
In campaign mode, politicians exaggerate and simplify.
They make promises — like "build a big, beautiful wall" — that could not possibly all be carried out. Carrying out some of their promises would be incompatible with carrying out others. Their promises are also unrealistic since implementing them usually requires cooperation from other parts of the government, cooperation which often cannot be obtained.
When columnist James Reston reassured readers that newly elected Jimmy Carter was not going to "swallow his own campaign baloney," he was alluding to the fact that once they have been elected, presidents normally switch from campaigning to governing.
In governing mode, presidents do not hold campaign rallies. They stop oversimplifying the measures needed to tackle national problems and start doing nuance.
They try to talk sense. They try to do cost-benefit analysis.
In governing mode, presidents surround themselves with the best possible advisers and listen to them seriously. If they have good advisers, presidents will get conflicting advice, since there are always conflicting considerations when policy decisions must be made.
No matter how good the advisers, Harry Truman's famous desk sign, "The buck stops here," remains all too true. Presidents must decide whose advice to take. As Machiavelli pointed out 500 years ago, "A prince who is without any wisdom himself cannot be well advised."
In campaign mode candidates have a natural temptation to lie. They choose words on the basis of a calculation of their consequences: maximizing the number of voters they will please and minimizing those they will alienate.
Oddly enough, "candidates" often can't afford to be candid, to say what they really think.
In governing mode, presidents must avoid overstating things. Instead they should educate people to understand the complexity of actual life and the need to make policy decisions carefully. They do not speak off the cuff or articulate every thought and feeling they have at the moment. As Calvin Coolidge said, after leaving the White House, "The words of the president have an enormous weight and ought not be used indiscriminately."
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is still holding campaign rallies. He declared he would seek a second term as soon as he entered his present term. A recent headline reported that his "campaign manager privately pushes president to hold firm on border wall fight."
His campaign manager?!
Trump is still campaigning and has never switched over to governing.
Perhaps in a second term Trump would be able to move into governing mode and focus on seriously managing the country. Ironically, his failure to do so during this term (so far) may decrease the probability that there will be a second term.
So we may never get to see how a Trump government could operate.
If I were one of Trump's advisers, I would ask him if he wants to be an effective president whose stock will go up in history. If so, I would suggest that he should announce right away — perhaps as early as the State of the Union address — that he has decided not to seek a second term. He could then discontinue campaign rallies (which are always satisfying since critics are excluded) and focus on being the best president he can be for the rest of this term.
He could stop tweeting and kick in to governing mode.
It would be interesting to see what Trump could accomplish by governing.