Donald Trump Makes a Surprising Discovery About the Presidency

President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump is saluted as they await the arrival of Argentine President Mauricio Macri and his wife Juliana Awada at the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Yesterday, President Trump gave an interview to Reuters. It covered a lot of ground though perhaps the most newsworthy item was President Trump’s admission that he considered a war with North Korea to be a possibility.

One of the more interesting parts came when President Trump reflected upon how being elected had changed his life:

“You’re really into your own little cocoon, because you have such massive protection that you really can’t go anywhere,” he said.

When the president leaves the White House, it is usually in a limousine or an SUV.

He said he missed being behind the wheel himself.

“I like to drive,” he said. “I can’t drive any more.”

But this is the one that is getting attention:

“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Trump told Reuters in an interview. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

It is doubtful that Trump is the first new president to be truly awed by the difficulty of the American presidency. When Bill Clinton was first elected, Paul Begala summed up the presidency as “Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool.” The American presidency combines the status as head of state with the duties of a prime minister without the legislative clout. I think it is particularly common for people who have been executives in the private sector to come into government with a lack of understanding of how difficult it is to get anything done in an organization where your success actually depends upon subordinates wanting you to succeed.

Many years ago when I commanded an infantry company, my girlfriend told me, “your job is so easy, you just tell people what to do and they do it.” And that is actually the way no American infantry company has ever worked. It is difficult to remove senior non-commissioned officers. Privates are hard to come by and the Army is loathe to discharge them because they don’t toe your line. Traditions and “we’ve always done it this way” run strong. Everyone knows you, the commander, are passing through. You may serve a year (humble brag: I commanded for 25 months) while your sergeants and troops are in there for the long haul. To move off the point of inertia requires daily sales pitches and motivational talks leavened with positive and negative reinforcement. Trump had a lot of responsibility in the private sector and he had a lot of actual power. He could shut down business units with no explanation. He could hire and fire at a whim. He could say whatever he wished. People who worked for him might not have liked him but they had to at least pretend they did. Now he’s in a situation where he has immense responsibility but his ability to actually create change is constrained by the necessity to negotiate with other power centers, in and out of government, in order to reach a consensus. And he’s subject to mockery and ridicule on a daily basis, often anonymously by people who should be grateful to him. The presidency, I imagine, is like Dead Sea Fruit in his mouth and he can’t just cancel the season or walk away from the business.

I think this interview also gives us a hint at what to look for in 2020. Back in my childhood, one of my favorite cartoons was Mister Wizard with Tooter Turtle. Every episode had the same plot. Tooter Turtle was unhappy with his lot in life and wanted to be something more exciting (astronaut, cowboy, whatever). He would approach Mister Wizard and ask for a favor. Inevitably the episode ends with Tooter within seconds of a life-ending disaster and screaming “Mister Wizard, I don’t want to be a [fill in the blank] anymore.” (Skip to 4:00 for the punchline.)

My guess is that in 2020 we’re going find Donald Trump saying it is time to let someone else build on his legacy because I don’t think he’s going to want to be president anymore.