Presidents look for a number of qualities when they staff the upper reaches of the executive branch. Ideally they want someone who has subject matter expertise (someone who knows about health issues to be Secretary of Health and Human Services for example). It is not unreasonable for them also to want people who will help advance the agenda of the president. Other characteristics like honesty, skill at public appearances, and experience in government are also desirable.
But the core qualities of loyalty and competence are central to staffing decisions. Throughout American history in different eras, loyalty and competence have had different weights for presidents. Since Richard Nixon, Republican presidents in particular have been concerned about their cabinet secretaries being co-opted by the departments they led. As a result, they have increasingly valued loyalty more than competence in their appointments.
In the George W. Bush Administration this became a significant problem after Hurricane Katrina (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”). It was also seen in the Bush administration’s oversight of Iraq after the invasion, and challenges at the Department of Justice under Alberto Gonzalez.
But no administration has placed as high a value on loyalty as the current one. From tweeting about civil servants who are perceived to be disloyal, to publicly humiliating those who testified against him in the impeachment hearings, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will ban TikTok from operating in the US Trump’s 2019 financial disclosure reveals revenue at Mar-a-Lago, other major clubs Treasury to conduct policy review of tax-exempt status for universities after Trump tweets MORE has made clear that there is one qualification to serving in his administration, unquestioning loyalty to him.
Hiring loyal people doesn’t mean that they will all be incompetent. Few would describe Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing ‘an embarrassment’ for Democrats: ‘Just wanted to excoriate him’ GOP lawmakers comply with Pelosi’s mask mandate for House floor MORE or Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin as incompetent. But when competence is not one of the criteria for selecting a subordinate, then whether or not your appointees can effectively do their jobs is a matter of luck rather than design. And when competent appointees like Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisLawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany Are US-Japan relations on the rocks? Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE or Chief of Staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE are driven out at the first sign of disloyalty, then incompetence becomes more likely.
The United States is now experiencing the results of this management approach. It has affected the most significant issues the country is dealing with. There has been a response to a pandemic that has arguably been the worst of any developed democracy. We have a recession that is likely to be deeper and more severe than any economic downturn since the Great Depression. And protests in the streets of American cities have been exacerbated by the actions of the federal government.
And in attempting to accomplish its priorities, the Trump administration cannot seem to produce even modest successes. Deregulatory efforts (at least those not passed by Congress) consistently get overturned by the courts. As a result, it will be much easier for a potential Biden administration to quickly reverse many of these policy initiatives.
Managing the executive branch is an underrated skill for potential presidents.
Given its size and the vast number of tasks that are placed before it, having a collection of talented individuals to help a president manage the vast apparatus of government is an essential part of a successful presidency. Loyalty is not unimportant, but focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else has predictably bad results.
Even administrations known for their competence struggle in their second terms. Think about the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration or the VA scandal in the Obama administration. Given the record of failures in the first term of the Trump administration, it is hard (and scary) to imagine what a decline in competence would look like in a second term.
Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.