Trump is instinctive, but not like Reagan was

Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate.
Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Well before Donald Trump, we had plenty of presidents who operated by instinct. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all prided themselves on their ability to size up people and situations — and to do so accurately and quickly.

Social scientists like to distinguish between two ways of thinking: fast and slow. In their terminology, System 1 is intuitive, rapid, and emotional. By contrast, System 2 is deliberative, reflective, and intent on calculation. System 1 operates effortlessly; System 2 works hard.

Both systems are indispensable to human life. When System 1 is working well, you can tell, almost immediately, whether someone is a friend or a foe. System 1 enables you to drive safely while on automatic pilot. It helps you to assess your partner’s emotional state after a few seconds of conversation.

But System 1 can also get you into big trouble. It can lead you to buy products you don’t need, to get into pointless fights with colleagues, and to make idiotic investments. It can make you fearful when your plane encounters turbulence or when you pass a large yellow dog on the street. To calm down, you need to invoke System 2, which will tell you that planes rarely crash and that, in fact, the dog is a friendly Labrador retriever.

On the basis of his first months, it seems clear that we have never had a System 1 president like Donald Trump — which accounts for his head-spinning combination of bold moves, big ideas, warm embraces, unseemly score-keeping, bizarre rages, and sudden reversals. Of course Trump’s approach is a stunning contrast with that of Barack Obama, a painstaking deliberator who, like Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and all our other System 2 presidents, thought long and hard about decisions and immersed himself in details.


But it’s the comparison between Trump and our most noteworthy System 1 presidents — above all, Reagan and Johnson — that’s telling.

On Oct. 22, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signs into law a landmark tax overhaul on the South Lawn of the White House.
On Oct. 22, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signs into law a landmark tax overhaul on the South Lawn of the White House. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

Reagan and Johnson could absorb information, too, but, like Trump, they didn’t have a lot of patience for that. They favored big, bold strokes and counted on their staffs to fill in the details.

As a young lawyer in the Department of Justice, I was privileged to see Reagan’s first year from the inside. In one of his most characteristic and important early actions, Reagan issued a historic executive order on federal regulation, forbidding agencies from proceeding unless the benefits justified the costs.


In a way, that’s a simple idea, stemming from System 1 thinking: “Less regulation!”

But it was anything but a gimmick. It required a lot of System 2 thinking from experts who had to figure out exactly how to implement it.

Reagan’s order turned out to be a master stroke, because it directed executive agencies to deliberate long and hard on the right questions: What, concretely, would be the benefits of rules intended to reduce deaths on the highways, to clean the air, or to make workplaces safer? What would be the costs? Would the benefits outweigh the costs?

Compare Trump’s very different regulatory initiative, which orders that every time a federal agency issues a regulation, it has to eliminate two others. The “one in, two out” rule is certainly bold, and it also reflects Reagan-style System 1 thinking: “Less regulation!”

But it’s unlikely to prove a master stroke.

Some agencies should be issuing life-saving regulations, because the benefits justify the costs, even if they can’t easily find two regulations to eliminate. Other agencies should be issuing no new regulations — and should eliminate five regulations, or 10, or even 20.

Trump’s staff is working hard to implement the idea of “one in, two out.” They might be able to make it work. But, compared with Reagan’s initiative, it looks pretty arbitrary.


At its best, the Reagan administration benefited from a president with clear instincts and a highly professional, experienced White House that was able to separate sense from nonsense, to work respectfully and well with the civil service, and to deliberate carefully about competing courses of action.

It’s no wonder that in its early months, Reagan’s team rejected numerous initiatives, favored by the Republican base, that would have created a ton of legal trouble — for example, stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction in desegregation and school prayer cases, and trying to overrule Roe v. Wade by statute.

Donald Trump speaks with reporters after the presidential debate at the Reagan Library.
Donald Trump speaks with reporters after the presidential debate at the Reagan Library. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

By contrast, Trump’s System 1 presidency has suffered from its embrace of headline-grabbing reforms that have not been subjected to adequate deliberation.

The inadequately vetted ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, struck down by several federal courts, is one example. So is the failed effort to replace the Affordable Care Act with ill-considered legislation that would have resulted in a loss of insurance coverage for 24 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office — a repository of System 2 thinking.

More subtly but most revealingly, so is the failure so far to enact even one of the smaller-scale initiatives that would move forward some part of President Trump’s policy agenda — including, for example, parental leave and child care reforms, increased school choice, expanded vocational and technical education, and improved medical treatment for veterans.

If the positions of a System 1 president are not a product of careful deliberation, he is also likely to lurch from one position to another. NATO is obsolete, and then it isn’t. The Export-Import Bank should be abolished, and then it shouldn’t. China is a currency manipulator, and then it isn’t.


To be sure, learning is important, and in each of these cases, President Trump appears to have learned. But when System 1 is running the show, there is a big risk that the day’s impulses will produce erratic and harmful decisions.

The good news, coming from history, is that a System 1 president can succeed. But in the White House, he needs first-rate System 2 backup. Thus far, President Trump doesn’t seem to have what he needs, and he doesn’t appear to think he needs it.

Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of “The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science” and “The World According to Star Wars.”