Expect Trump's selections to have a big impact

It is natural to evaluate Mr Donald Trump's appointments based on whether we agree with the stances of the appointees. But it is also worth asking how effective a United States 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 former generals and a high number with corporate backgrounds, such as those 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 Mr Trump? I think they are 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:

•The ability to interest the public in policy change;

•The ability to influence Congress;

•The ability to think outside the usual Washington "boxes"; and

•The ability to reach and motivate the President when necessary.



  • President-elect Donald Trump's appointees and potential picks include (from top) Mr Steven Mnuchin, Mr Rex Tillerson, General James Mattis, Lt-Gen Michael Flynn, Mr Sylvester Stallone and Dr Ben Carson. The most striking characteristic of many of the selections is their relative lack of political experience. PHOTOS: REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The unusual backgrounds of many Trump appointees make more sense by these standards.

For instance, Mr Trump does not seem to be as focused on details or policy as Mr Obama has been. It is 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 do not have experience working the levers of Washington.

It is 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 does not usually defeat the process-oriented constraints of the Washington establishment, but occasionally it does - 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 do not 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. Mr Lawrence Kudlow (disclosure: a former colleague of mine), a contender to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, has been criticised 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 to policy are pretty simple, his background might make him more effective than a better- qualified academic.

One rumour is that Mr 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 Mr 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. (He 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 Defence, and arguably the Trump picks for those areas are consistent with that view. (They are financier Steven Mnuchin, corporate executive Rex Tillerson and military man James Mattis respectively.) For many of the other picks, there's a case for taking more chances.

I am 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 Lieutenant- General Michael Flynn as national security adviser. But I interpret Mr 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'Expect Trump's selections to have a big impact'. Print Edition | Subscribe