WASHINGTON — Some presidents have been accused of leading the country in the wrong direction. At least one has been accused of leading from behind.
Now many critics have an even more profound concern: a president who often doesn’t seem interested in leading at all.
Even his would-be Republican allies are agog, as President Trump lurches from one crisis to the next, impulsively tweeting, lacking a coherent message, and warring with the media. He has shown limited ability to harness support for policy initiatives in Congress, even though it is controlled by his own party. He’s done little to provide the public with a vision for what he wants to do.
He’s given just one prime-time speech to the nation since his inauguration, a joint address to Congress back in February.
Neither is national leadership coming from outside the White House. Top Republicans in Congress have shown an inability to use the power of majority control to get big things done and an unwillingness to challenge a dysfunctional White House for control of the Washington agenda. And Democrats? Bless their bleeding hearts. They have almost as little influence at the moment as cable television hosts.
With the country confronting profound domestic and international problems, Washington is experiencing a void of leadership unlike in any other period in modern history, according to scholars and political specialists. In its first six months, Trump’s presidency has created an extraordinary power vacuum that is leaving the nation and the globe uneasy.
“I can’t even think of a presidency which controls both houses of Congress getting off to such a weird, unpredictable, chaotic start,” said David Gergen, who has served as a White House adviser to four presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. “To be fair, he’s got a party that’s fractured. . . . But presidents have to do tough things with tough circumstances. That’s why it’s a big job.
“The president, to use a metaphor,” Gergen added, “has been running around like a headless horseman.”
Even more unsettling: There is nothing on the horizon suggesting that this strange and unsettling Washington dynamic will change over the 3½ years that remain in Trump’s term.
“The American political system is based on the president taking the initiative and Congress responding. With President Trump, it’s been the opposite,” said H.W. Brands, a University of Texas professor and biographer of multiple presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan.
“He doesn’t know the details of the policy, so he’s not a persuasive advocate one way or the other,” he added. “When a president doesn’t know the policy, it doesn’t make for a very effective leader.”
Multiple scholars and political experts contacted by the Globe could not recall a period in recent history when Washington was this rudderless.
There is, meanwhile, plenty to get done. Subway systems in major American cities are in disrepair, while roads and bridges are crumbling. Health insurers are pulling out of key marketplaces, spooked by uncertainty surrounding former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the failure of Republicans to pass their long-promised repeal-and-replace law. An opioid epidemic is sweeping large swaths of the country.
Everyone agrees the tax code is too complicated, but prospects for an overhaul seem dim. There’s bipartisan agreement that immigration rules need reform, yet no one is wagering the GOP can use its control of Washington to pass anything or strike a compromise with Democrats.
“You have one-party control of Congress, and who would have thought they would have no agenda, no vision, and no ability to get things done?” said John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist. “Whether you agreed with what they were doing or not, you thought they’d do something.
“The bulk of the blame has to be with the president,” he added. “The speaker and Senate majority leader could [lead in another direction] if they had the desire or intestinal fortitude. But the two we have don’t, and won’t.”
A White House spokesman defended Trump’s record, pointing to optimism among manufacturers, to regulations that have been reduced, and to a recent bill Trump signed into law making it easier to restructure and reform the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“If a leader is defined as a person who frequently gives prime-time addresses or press conferences, then there is a problem with your definition of a leader,” the spokesman, Tyler Ross, said in a statement. “A good leader is one that protects the nation’s economic and national security.
“By placing American interests first, President Trump is overseeing a massive reduction in illegal immigration, the elimination of billions of dollars’ worth of job-killing regulations, and is pursuing fair and reciprocal trade deals to better benefit American workers,” he added. “Today we are an economically stronger and more secure nation. There is nothing ‘leaderless’ about that.”
Trump showed contempt for government when he ran for office, and he vowed to break down and disrupt the Washington establishment. That he is well on the way to doing, and the free-wheeling, proudly pugilistic style of the candidate has held true for his presidency.
White House press briefings are short and contentious. Trump’s Twitter comments are a constant distraction that takes the political focus away from health care and immigration and puts it on his treatment of women, his fights with the media, or almost anything but policy. He won’t even agree with the rest of his party and Democrats that Americans have a common enemy, refusing to publicly rebuke and investigate Russia for meddling in the 2016 election.
While Trump has held 11 press conferences, only one of those took place without a foreign leader also present. That lone solo press conference, which was nearly five months ago, puts him on pace for the fewest for a president in nearly a century, according to figures from the American Presidency Project. Obama had 11 solo press conferences during his first year in office; George W. Bush had five, while Bill Clinton had 12.
Trump has also given almost no major policy addresses, prime vehicles for a leader to advance his agenda or help the nation make sense of challenges, foreign or domestic.
“At this point in the administration of Ronald Reagan, there would have already been two big speeches on the underlying philosophy and why these particular bills would be put into effect,” Brands said. “Same with Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. They knew enough about policy to advance their own policy. It’s hard to say that Trump actually has a health care policy.”
Trump has even ceded the most crucial aspect of foreign policy — how many American lives to risk in overseas security operations. He has left the decision of how many additional ground troops to send to Afghanistan to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Nor has there been a press conference on his plan to defeat the Islamic State — a public accounting that Trump said on May 21 would take place within two weeks.
And his agenda this week at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, for his first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin?
“Well, there’s no specific agenda,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters last week. “It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
The lack of a concerted effort to rally Americans behind a rationale for governing, or a vision for the future, is having an impact, according to polls. When asked how they felt things were going in Washington right now, only 11 percent of Americans said they were excited, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released last week. One-third of those surveyed said they were “uneasy,’’ while 42 percent said they were “alarmed.’’
“There is an opportunity for leadership,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, at Hofstra University. “But this White House doesn’t seem to be interested in any of the traditional norms or approaches to building support for passing legislation.”
Ironically, Washington has sunk to a leadership low when it should be easy for the GOP to get things done.
“This is extraordinary because you’ve got no impeachment, you’ve got no international crisis, and you’ve got one-party rule,” said Edward G. Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
He thinks that top congressional leaders missed an opportunity when, after GOP congressmen were fired on during a baseball practice, calls for unity and better dialogue didn’t bring out any action.
“Look, the nation’s fed up, we’re producing idiots on both sides of the aisle,” Rendell said. “We’ve got to bring this country together. Forget about Trump. . . . He’s rendered himself irrelevant. But you could have strong congressional leadership that could do some things for the country. That’s the great tragedy here.”
Congress historically has stepped in at times and flexed leadership muscle. Lyndon Johnson as Senate majority leader was one of the most forceful and effective in history. And in the mid-1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was so adroit at setting the agenda that President Bill Clinton, at a press conference carried by only one major news network, felt he had to declare, “I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell are not always adept at seizing the national spotlight, nor have they been able to unify the competing forces within their caucuses.
“Given the divisions within the Republican Party . . . it wouldn’t be easy under any circumstance,” said Bose, the historian from Hofstra. “I guess the question is, without any pattern of White House leadership to push a bill through to passage, is anything going to happen? The answer seems to be no.”
In some cases, congressional Republicans outperformed Trump in their home districts in the 2016 vote, so they don’t fear him politically or feel they risk repercussions if they ignore his policy desires. In other cases, Republicans have grown tired of his tweets and are willing to openly criticize the chief executive — as many did last week after his crude attacks on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
And while one of Trump’s frequent campaign claims was that he could win people over and cut deals, his tactics so far have seemed to have the opposite effect. What may have worked in the world of New York real estate and tabloid media has not translated well to Washington.
“Since he changes his mind all the time, they don’t want to commit to anything because they don’t trust him,” said Linda Fowler, a professor at Dartmouth College. “And trust is probably the most important thing a leader has going for him or her in terms of getting people to do things.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.