Editor’s Note: This post was written by Loryn DeFalco.
Being the president of the United States is an extremely difficult job. As president, it is important to look at the mistakes and successes that previous presidents have made. Each choice could have global consequences. Therefore, the stakes are too high to allow for a grace period. There are many lessons that newly elected President Trump can take from our fourth president, James Madison. The most relevant lessons are to have capable advisors and cabinet members, make united government a priority and have practical goals.
With any president, having qualified advisors is important because it is extremely difficult for one person to have expertise in every policy era. Madison’s and Trump’s presidencies are decades apart, but they have one important commonality: both men had no previous executive experience. It is common for successful presidents to have executive experience, but neither of these men did prior to taking the office of the president. Therefore, it is even more essential for the president to have capable and qualified advisors. Madison’s first term as president was plagued by unqualified war advisors. He appointed people solely based on their party affiliation and not their qualifications. As a result, during a time of war, Madison wasn’t receiving quality advice. Madison learned his lesson and by his second term, his cabinet was described as harmonious and competent. It would be important for Trump to learn this lesson sooner rather than later, especially because of the current global conditions. Qualified and trusted advisors are extremely important because, as Michael Gvosdev states, “even though all U.S. government decisions are made in the name of the President, in actuality, however, the President only has time and energy to make a fraction of the national security decisions in a personal capacity.” Unfortunately, it does not look like he will. He just recently appointed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to the National Security Council, regardless of his lack of foreign policy experience. Trump is making the same mistake that Madison did in his first term as president, appointing advisors and cabinet members not based on qualification, but on party affiliation. I think that Trump will learn this lesson on his own, but can save time and energy by learning from Madison’s failures.
Another important lesson that Trump should learn from Madison’s presidency is how important it is to get government to work together rather than against each other. This is obviously more difficult in today’s political environment because of polarization and gridlock. However, there are still opportunities for bipartisan legislation to get passed under the current administration. Also, much like Trump, Madison dealt with disunity among his own members of his party. During Madison’s presidency, the Republicans were divided, but he needed to get the different factions working together in order to have a majority in Congress. As a result, Madison quickly learned that he needed to facilitate unity. In today’s Republican party, there are also different factions and the disunity is predicted to only intensify with time. Trump also needs support from each of these groups in order to have a majority in Congress and have successful policies. Therefore, he can learn from Madison about how important it is to get these groups working together. It will be important for Trump to find common ground between these groups or it will extremely difficult to pass the legislation that the administration promised.
One of the biggest weakness of Madison’s presidency was his impractical goals. This is also something that Trump may struggle with as his presidency continues. Trump made many campaign promises that he will have a difficult time keeping. He promised health care reform, a wall on the Mexican border, renegotiating US payments to the UN, renegotiating trade agreements, among others. Some of these campaign promises he has already delivered on, like signing an executive order to get the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, while it is important for Trump to follow through on his campaign promises, he should learn from Madison’s mistakes and abandon impractical goals. Madison is often characterized by his naivety because he would become so attached to policy that had an improbability of success.
People often say they need to make their own mistakes or they will never learn. Unfortunately, the president cannot afford this luxury. President Trump’s decisions are instrumental and affect more than just himself. Thus, he needs to learn from his predecessors and avoid making the same mistakes.
Information in this post about President Madison was taken from “James Madison: The American Presidents Series” by Garry Wills.