President-elect Trump has spent the month since his election victory engaging in some distinctly presidential-style behavior, including engaging with businesses on behalf of the American people, conducting a bit of foreign policy, and delivering sweeping public addresses — all before he holds the authority of the presidency.
With weeks to go until he takes office, Trump’s moves have tested the limits of his unofficial powers as the president-in-waiting. And although his activism has drawn scrutiny from detractors, his favorability ratings have hit new heights on the heels of several high-profile successes.
“I don’t think it’s normal for a president-elect to be out and about like this, but this is the Era of Trump, and he is literally rewriting the rules,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
“Things always change when you actually are sworn in, but at the same time, he is taking advantage of this and throwing his weight around while he’s got the momentum,” O’Connell added.
Trump notched his first presidential-style win last week when he convinced executives at manufacturing firm Carrier to scrap their plans to move an Indianapolis plant to Mexico, saving somewhere between 700 and 1,100 jobs in the process.
He did so through a combination of state-level tax incentives offered by Vice President-elect Pence, Indiana’s lame-duck governor, and the promise of impending federal tax cuts designed to boost the business climate. Trump had similarly claimed to have kept Ford Motor Co. jobs from leaving the country. And Trump followed the Carrier deal with an announcement on Tuesday that a Japanese telecommunications corporation, SoftBank, would soon invest $50 billion to create 50,000 jobs in the U.S.
Trump’s acceptance last week of a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan made waves in diplomatic circles because it violated a “One China” policy of withholding recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty in existence since Jimmy Carter. Many interpreted the move as a signal that Trump intends to back up his tough campaign talk on China.
Later this week, Trump is slated to continue his presidential posturing. He will visit Thursday with the victims and first responders of the Ohio State University terror attack, taking on what is normally a sitting president’s role as comforter-in-chief. Trump’s policy-oriented moves have been separated by stadium rallies in states that delivered him his upset victory last month, making the president-elect’s “thank you” speeches a fixture of primetime broadcasts each week.
Mark Alderman, a member of Obama’s 2008 transition team, said Trump’s pre-inauguration activities were noteworthy more for their theatrics than their substance.
“I think that what you see is the president-elect acting like Donald Trump,” Alderman said. “And it doesn’t strike me as interfering or overstepping so much as just continuing the show that has been first the Trump campaign and soon to be the Trump administration.”
While Obama also assumed some presidential responsibilities during his transition period, Alderman said he did so mostly out of necessity.
“President-elect Obama was deeply involved in the financial crisis and he was, and his team, they were meeting regularly with the Bush administration, and they were governing,” he said. “I think President Obama began governing during the transition because of the circumstances, but there was a lot less of the show that President-elect Trump is putting on.”
Alderman said the “different DNA” of Obama and Trump meant the former pursued “more shared governing” with his predecessor and “less showmanship” than the latter.
Nevertheless, there seems to be little governing right now to share. Obama’s recent schedules sometimes include no public events at all. This week he gave a speech focusing on the past — seeking to justify his anti-terror policies. Trump seems in part to be filling the empty space Obama is providing.
Grant Reeher, political science professor at Syracuse University, noted Trump’s early moves are more characteristic of a sitting president than a president-elect.
“There’s a delicious irony to an aspect of this,” Reeher said. “During the campaign, everyone wondered, some pleaded, when would Donald Trump start acting ‘presidential.’ Now that he’s doing so as a president-elect, there is concern.”
Reeher said the nature of Trump’s transition style has mirrored the nature of his unconventional campaign, during which he attracted similar criticism for bucking traditions like releasing his tax returns or deferring to major media outlets.
“There’s no reason to think that once elected, he would turn on a dime and act like all previous president-elects, when he did not act like previous candidates,” Reeher said. “In their careers, politicians instinctively rely on the lessons they derived from their first great success and their first great loss. In Trump’s case, the lesson is that being unorthodox works.”
“In addition, there’s been a magnification effect on our collective sense of the transition from the hyper-attention the media is giving it,” Reeher added. “I can remember no previous transition that has generated this much scrutiny. I’m not saying there’s not a ‘there’ there, but I’m wondering whether the significance we’re attributing to these actions is not amplified by the media attention.”
As a mark of his eagerness to get governing, Trump has filled his Cabinet positions at a faster pace than did Obama in 2008. By December of that year, Obama had named only his treasury secretary, despite winning election four days earlier than Trump.
O’Connell argued Trump is simply fulfilling his promise to shake up Washington by conducting his transition differently than previous presidents-elect.
“I think that a lot of Trump’s critics are suffering from Obsessive Trump Disorder,” he said. “There’s a fear out there that he might actually be successful.”
Saturday, Trump will provide perhaps the strongest evidence yet that he thinks he is already the president. He will attend the Army-Navy football game in Baltimore, a tradition for presidents — actual, sitting presidents — stretching back to Teddy Roosevelt.