Faced with a stalled agenda and weak poll numbers, President Donald Trump has resorted to a familiar presidential tactic: running against Congress. The president has stepped up efforts to blame Democrats for not passing legislation, even though they are a minority in both chambers. In recent weeks, he has attacked at least two Republican senators at campaign-style rallies and criticized others on Twitter. He has opened a rift with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who has questioned Trump’s understanding of the legislative process.
We have seen from our individual perspectives the challenges and opportunities presented by a president’s inaugural year. All presidents face the temptation to try to go it alone, but that’s no way to set the stage for a successful presidency.
The only way for an administration to move past early mistakes is to work with, rather than against, the legislative branch, keeping a focus on policy priorities and avoiding getting bogged down by infighting and inside-the-Beltway clashes.
The Clinton administration, like all administrations, had its share of early stumbles. Some were the result of events beyond anyone’s control. Others were self-inflicted wounds. Yet, at no point did the White House consider abandoning its efforts to work with Congress. Instead, the president and his team crafted an economic plan designed to deliver on core campaign promises — and negotiated fiercely to secure the necessary votes.
A key element of this effort was outreach to the opposing party. Despite the fact that his fellow Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, President Bill Clinton understood that it is always preferable to pass legislation with bipartisan support. Chief executives have a responsibility — to themselves and to the country — to reach across the aisle. With this in mind, the administration courted Republicans from both chambers, even when the chances of winning their support for the president’s economic plan were slim.
Initial efforts did indeed prove unsuccessful: No Republican lawmaker supported Clinton’s economic plan. But by demonstrating respect for its political opponents, and a willingness to listen to differing views, the administration set the stage for policy victories in the years that followed. GOP members crossed the aisle to advance key priorities for the president, including ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement, helping to pass a welfare-to-work program and joining in compromises that led to a balanced budget.
Nor was outreach limited to the opposition. Clinton understood that members of his own party were critical allies and that even commanders in chief cannot simply order lawmakers to follow their lead. The White House engaged in tireless back-and-forth with fellow Democrats as the economic plan moved forward. In hindsight, it improved the final legislation in many ways, creating policies that were better than the ones either branch initially proposed. In other instances, both branches had to compromise, understanding that giving ground on some elements of a bill was a far better outcome than not passing a bill at all. Ultimately, the bill laid the groundwork for millions being lifted from poverty, tens of millions of new jobs and, what’s more, strong approval ratings for the president, showing that good politics stems from good policies.
Just as a president cannot dismiss Congress, neither can Congress dismiss a president. This is especially true in the first year. Lawmakers cannot easily wash their hands of a candidate they endorsed less than 12 months ago. True, the House and Senate lack the ability to steer the White House in the direction they choose. But by nominating a leader of their party and vouching for him on the campaign trail, a president’s congressional allies assume responsibility for bringing out the best in him once he takes office and for helping him transition into his new role.
We know from experience that cooperation — between branches of government and between parties — can be frustrating and tedious, with no guarantee of success. But a democracy such as ours depends on principled compromise. All Americans benefit when the White House and Congress work together, ideally in a bipartisan fashion, to improve the lives of the men and women they represent. We are all worse off, especially in times of crisis, if a president becomes isolated and unable to effectively lead.
During the campaign, Trump promised, “I alone can fix it.” That approach may work on a campaign or in a privately held business. It is not in keeping with the way our forebears wrote the Constitution and established our branches of government — and it is not what leads to a successful presidency.
George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine, was a member of the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1995, serving as majority leader from 1989 to 1995. Mack McLarty, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994, is chairman of McLarty Associates.