STILL FRESH FROM THE POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE OF 2016, leading experts at the Harvard Kennedy School came together to assess the new landscape in a series of roundtables in November. Panels on foreign policy and national security, economics and social policy, and politics and leadership debated the motivations of a restless electorate; the difficulties of leading a nation, and institutions that had been so severely criticized; and the challenges that await, both immediate and remote.
Nicholas Burns, Juliette Kayyem, and Steve Walt surveyed homeland security and an international order that doesn’t seem so orderly anymore. Doug Elmendorf, David Ellwood, and Brigitte Madrian grappled with the deep changes in the economy, both domestic and global. Barbara Kellerman, David King, and Roger Porter discussed politics and leadership in an age of tweets and protest votes. The discussions, organized in conjunction with HKS PolicyCast, are available as podcasts. Excerpts, edited for clarity, follow—but you can download and hear the full conversations on PolicyCast.
Foreign policy and national security
We are the system operator
NICHOLAS BURNS | Roy and Barbara Goodman Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations
There is an international system, and we are the system operator. There’s been a consensus in both our political parties and every president since Franklin Roosevelt that we need to be engaged, we need to lead. Donald Trump has a lot of opinions. He doesn’t have a structured world view. That’s not a criticism. He’s been a real estate developer, a golf course developer in New York. Will he develop a governing philosophy of how to push American power forward? Will he have experienced people around him at State, at DOD, in Treasury, in the White House, at the Department of Homeland Security, who can help him think how to use American power at a very complex time? Will he believe, as Republican presidents have said, that we are an exceptional power, or, as many Democratic presidents have said, that we are indispensable to the global order? Trump needs to become healer-in-chief in our domestic policy, in our foreign policy. There are a lot of gaping wounds that need to be filled, and I hope he succeeds.
JULIETTE KAYYEM | Belfer Lecturer in International Security
I think my biggest concern is that Trump’s campaign unleashed something in the homeland that Republican presidents and Democratic presidents have tamed through crises, whether it’s Bush after 9/11 or Obama after a series of attacks. I don’t know what this country looks like the day after. If it’s something relatively small like Orlando, or something catastrophic. I think the inclination of this disposal of the democratic norms that every president, until this time, has respected…For homeland security purposes, I’m very worried about the day after.
STEVE WALT | Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs
Now, foreign policy is rarely the most important thing people are thinking about in a voting booth, but I don’t think it was irrelevant in this particular campaign. What’s remarkable is that Trump ran against the prevailing foreign policy views that have dominated American thinking and acting for 50 or 60 years. He ran head-on against many of them, which is why, quite remarkably, he was opposed not only by Democratic foreign policy experts but by over 100 senior Republican foreign policy experts. And yet he won. What we all ought to be asking ourselves is what this is telling us about not just what he believes but what he tapped into.
KAYYEM: I think Trump tapped into the sense that…what security is at its core is, How are my kids? Are my kids safe? Am I worried about it? Is there someone emotionally feeling my fear?…Now, he created a fear also. Everyone knows the statistics: being eaten by a shark and hit by lightning simultaneously is more likely than dying from ISIS. He catered to that fear, but I think there is something there for us to learn…something that we need to promote…which is that ultimately safety and security, to be honest, are about the home and the homeland.
BURNS: This election was not a resounding repudiation of the way that Washington has worked. There were millions of people who spoke out, but there were millions of people who supported Hillary Clinton. Here’s the key point: Donald Trump wasn’t straight with the American people on a number of important issues. Millions of Americans have profited from the trade agreements, and it’s the complexity from a public policy perspective, of how you look at both sides of this issue, that was completely lost. Second issue: Donald Trump said, “What good is NATO if they’re not involved in the war on terrorism?” The answer to that is they’re in Afghanistan with us. The allies came to our defense [after 9/11]. They all went to Afghanistan. They’re all still there 15 years later. They’ve taken thousands of casualties, dead and wounded. They’re going to be with us as long as we want to be there.
WALT: He now has a real problem. He wants to run a radical policy. He’s claiming he’s going to drain the swamp in Washington, completely alter our foreign relations, and here is his dilemma: If he tries to do that with…people with no policy experience at all, they’re going to make enormous rookie mistakes. If, on the other hand, he goes back to the experienced Republican foreign policy officials, even those who might’ve opposed his candidacy, they’re going to want to go back to exactly the policies that he rejected throughout the campaign, and some of his supporters—maybe not all, but some of his supporters—will think, “We got taken.”
BURNS: I worry that the differences at home produced by this very ugly campaign are going to be maybe more challenging than even the foreign policy challenge. He is facing probably the most complex foreign and domestic set of challenges since Roosevelt. I think it’s as tough and complex and dangerous as anything we faced in the past 70 years. //
Economics and social policy
I always lose, you always win
DOUG ELMENDORF | HKS Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy
I think we have an economy that over the past few decades has been working very well for some people in our country and not very well for many others. I think there is legitimate frustration about that, and concern by other people that even if things are okay for them now, they might not be so good in the future, because they watch their friends and neighbors encounter various problems. If you look at the states that went for Donald Trump in a surprising way, you look at Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan, where we know there has been a hollowing out of their economies over the past several decades. That hollowing out has had real social consequences.
DAVID ELLWOOD | Isabelle and Scott Black Professor of Political Economy
I agree with you, particularly where there were the surprises. Those are places where it really does feel like it’s not only that people are struggling—their kids are struggling. People work hard, and their kids are supposed to do better. That sense of the American dream, particularly in the so-called Rust Belt or midwestern states, I think is really being challenged. I care a lot about mobility from poverty. But what is very, very clear is you go to certain regions and it just doesn’t feel like there’s any mobility from anything. That said, I’m really quite struck by how many people are focused on mobility. Words like “mobility” are used by Paul Ryan all the time. There’s plenty of debate about the different strategies to be used.
BRIGITTE MADRIAN | Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management
I think the biggest change we’ve seen is a change in social responsibility for individuals versus personal responsibility. If you look, for example, at how we provide income for the elderly in retirement, 30 or 40 years ago it would have come primarily from Social Security and also from private pensions that are a guaranteed benefit provided by an individual’s former employer. Over the past 30 or 40 years, that system has completely changed. Social Security is still an important source of income, but of course it’s got serious fiscal challenges that need to be addressed going forward. We’ve basically replaced private employer pensions for individuals in the private sector, not in the public sector, with 401(k) plans where the outcome is really determined by how much you save and whether you make good investment choices or not. It’s a riskier proposition for individuals, and one key element of risk is that only about half the workforce is participating in an employer-sponsored savings plan. The other half predominantly doesn’t even have access to an employer sponsored savings plan. Not only are we seeing inequality in current wages, we’re seeing inequality in the ability to accumulate wealth for retirement that’s going to persist for decades going forward.
ELMENDORF: I think Brigitte’s point is very important, because we have a society where we’ve provided a certain amount of support for people through their private employers, and that really is changing. I don’t think we’ve thought through all the things that we need to do as a society to help people who don’t get pensions through their employers, who don’t get health insurance through their employers.
MADRIAN: When Trump was asked about social security, which is the biggest entitlement program and in serious fiscal difficulties for the long run, he gave a very short answer—that he wanted to cut taxes and not cut benefits. The math from that does not add up. The only way to make Social Security fiscally sustainable going forward is through a combination of cutting benefits, increasing taxes, and probably delaying the retirement age a little bit. If you do all three of those, you can do them in small measure. If you do them sooner, you can do them in a smaller measure. But if you procrastinate, it’s going to require bigger cuts, and if you put your head in the sand or you deny the math it’s not going to work out.
ELMENDORF: I think it’s very unclear what sort of entitlement reform Republicans will actually pursue in the specifics.. . . In fact, the Republican-led House has in the past six years moved no legislation that would significantly cut entitlements, except for attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I think that’s because although in the abstract, cutting entitlement benefits sounds good to a lot of people, in the specifics it gets much harder.
MADRIAN: All three of us here are economists by training, and when we teach economics classes, one concept we talk about is efficiency. Free trade is usually billed as efficient in the sense that it allows us to expand economic output at lower cost. If China can produce something at a lower cost than we can, it makes sense to produce it in China; we produce other things where we’re better suited, and then we trade and everyone’s better off. Now, when you teach that in class, you recognize that there will be winners and losers. The idea is that if we can expand the size of the pie, in theory we can make the losers better off through redistributive programs. I think some of the pushback [from some voters], some of their frustration, is “We are the people who lost out from these free trade deals, and there was no attempt to do things that would help us reap the benefits from free trade that are accruing to the economy as a whole.”
ELLWOOD: People are sort of saying, “I knew there were going to be winners and losers [with trade], but how come I always lose and you always win?” You can try to close borders and so forth, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve your problem, because you make the pie smaller, and then what are you going to do? I think what you have to do is figure out strategies whereby people can compete and be much more successful in this kind of world. I think there are many other things you can do to try to create more of a strategy for job ladders, more ways in which people can move forward. The tragedy I see here is it’s really hard to see how massive tax cuts at the top, no change in fundamental structure on the fiscal side, and no real changes in thinking other than about trade—it doesn’t really add up. I feel like it’s very likely those people are going to be losers again.
ELMENDORF: I think our history suggests that as the sectoral composition of the economy changes, we tend to create jobs for people who want jobs, but the jobs can be quite different. That’s what we need to worry about. It’s possible there will be no jobs for less-skilled people. I don’t think that’s the main problem though. I think the main problem is that the jobs that will exist will require different sorts of education or training, and we need to help people get to that. And the jobs that will exist will not be for the big company with the pensions and the health care benefits—the things that Brigitte talked about before.
MADRIAN: We’re going to have to think about how we provide the benefits that have traditionally been provided through employers to the growing number of individuals who are basically self-employed, and is that going to require a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach? In most other countries, health insurance is not something delegated to employers to provide, it’s something provided by the federal government. The U.S. system works well if you have most of your workforce in jobs attached to a large employer. But if the economy is changing, we now have to think about do you want to redesign the whole system?
MADRIAN: The gig economy jobs that are fundamentally tied to technology—the great thing about that is, the payment mechanisms are all electronic. It wouldn’t be that hard to think of a way to help those individuals save for retirement through something that looks like a 401(k) plan. Much more difficult to think about is how you would do that on the health insurance side, where health insurance is not a commodity that you scale up or scale down in the same way that you can do with savings. Having three lousy minimal health insurance policies from three different jobs is not really the right approach.
ELMENDORF: I think it’s a very positive sign that many people on the Republican side and the conservative side are focused on increasing economic opportunity. Of course, the harder part is agreeing on steps one might take. I’m hopeful that we will spend less time in the next few years arguing over budget numbers and about whether certain things can be cut or not, and spend more time thinking about innovative ways to help people. If we can get a little bit out of what I view now as a pretty sterile debate about cutting benefits and focus more on how to build avenues for economic opportunity, as David says, I think that would be much more constructive. And I think there’s some chance that will happen. //
Politics and leadership
Beholden to no party
ROGER PORTER | IBM Professor of Business and Government
This is one of the few times we have elected a president who has no governmental experience whatsoever, federal, state, or local. He’s a very capable individual—it takes a lot to win a presidential election—but what he’s about to do now he cannot do on his own. The defining characteristic of our American political system is that we divide and distribute and fragment power, and how he develops his relationship with the other branches of government, and with his own executive branch, is going to be a big task for him.
BARBARA KELLERMAN | James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership
In general, American voters are restless in a way and impatient in a way and crude and rude in a way that is historically unprecedented. This is amplified by technology, obviously social media in particular, so no matter how gifted a leader Donald Trump may turn out to be, the loudness and brashness and even coarseness of the voices that he will have to be dealing with is historically unprecedented and it doesn’t stop. The 24/7 drumbeat of discontent, malcontent, frustration, is a new and different environment, not just for this particular leader, but for anybody who’s trying to lead anything in American politics.
DAVID KING | Senior Lecturer in Public Policy
To be successful, one has to work with the powers that be, and the powers that be are not in the White House. The powers that be exist in the state houses and certainly in Congress. Yes, it’s a united government right now, but there are lots of procedural blocks. In the Senate, the filibuster is going to be in place, and that means that the Democrats can stop a lot of important legislation. On the House side, there’s this important rift…and I anticipate that Speaker Ryan will become a bit more of a statesman and leader. If President Trump is to be “successful,” it has to be in cooperation with others.
KELLERMAN: The power that Trump exercised during the campaign was—as Roger just suggested—a very different kind of power from the one that he’s going to have to exercise when he is actually president. As we know, campaigning for the White House is one thing, and actually governing from the White House is something quite different…He’s so used to being a dominant personality. He keeps talking about the art of the deal; well, we’ll see whether that art of the deal is achieved through the capacity to negotiate, or, dare I say, to play well with others. From what we can tell, his strong suit is not playing well with others…It is entirely possible that the man I would describe as a bull in a china shop, literally and figuratively, may turn out to be more adroit than he was originally given credit for.
PORTER: I have spoken with people who have known Trump for a long time and have worked with him in one capacity or another in New York. What they tell me is that there is one thing that matters most to him, and that is what he calls winning, and he wants to be a winner. My guess is that he will try very hard to figure out a way to win as he calculates winning. Presidents calculate winning in many ways. He seems to be quite interested in polls and in what other people think. My suspicion is that he will take a number of measures that he has some confidence will be popular with the public. It’s quite interesting how patterns get established, perceptions are created, and images get emblazoned on people. They’re very hard to change. Trust is something that is earned over an extended period of time, and it can be lost or damaged. My advice would be for Trump to be very careful in the first moves he makes, and to keep in mind that he’s going to want those moves to assist him the next day, and the next week, and the next month, and the next year. Many presidents, when they come into office full of the excitement of an election victory and with a majority of their own party, discover that the tables can turn, and turn rather quickly.
KING: There used to be this literature in political science called “the importance of strategic ambiguity,” which is basically, “Hey, I’ll tell one set of people one thing, another set of people another thing.” You want to be clear, but strategically ambiguous. We do see in his document about the first 100 days what he’s going to do; there’s at least a passable list there. I found it interesting how much wasn’t on that list. He still is strategically ambiguous about a lot of things, I think that’s to his benefit, absolutely. We had Fidel Castro recently die, and Trump has gone on the record many times saying he’s going to get rid of that terrible executive order, which was beginning the process of normalizing relations under President Obama. I was fascinated by a tweet that Trump sent in which he managed to again be so brilliantly strategically ambiguous. He said, “We’re going to get rid of that executive order, because I can negotiate a better one.” That’s playing it both ways.
PORTER: People who are in elective office, whether they’re in the executive branch or in the legislative branch, want to do things. People don’t go through the ordeal of getting elected, which is a real ordeal in the American political system, simply to go there and complain and grouse about others…Donald Trump will be wise if he finds some common ground with Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate…What he should want to do is try to figure out how he can get a broad base of support, whether it’s for corporate tax reform, or coming up with what we’re going to replace the health care system with, or legal immigration, or infrastructure—any number of things. We’re going to have to figure out what to do with the global trading system as well.
KING: When he becomes president, I don’t think he’s going to be tweeting with the same kind of wild abandon. I don’t think that what he’s doing is irrational. I think the way he’s been tweeting up a storm lately is much like a magician, who captures your attention while he’s stealing your watch. Look over here while we’re doing something. It’s been a tremendously successful way of cutting out the media, but as president he’ll find other ways to communicate. A lot of what the president does is not communicate, so what the president doesn’t say can say an awful lot. So I think we’re not going to be talking about Twitter as much six months from now.
KELLERMAN: I think one indication of the tweets is the series of tweets when [Vice President Mike] Pence went to Hamilton, and the audience booed, and then the cast lectured Pence on what they would like to see happen. In his indignation, Trump tweeted several times. What was happening simultaneously with that tweeting was the legal decision to settle the suit against Trump University. Instead of us paying, instead of the media paying, a lot of attention to what was going on with Trump University, the tweets were serving to deflect. He has used them brilliantly and strategically. We keep thinking that Trump is going to conform to our conceptions of what has been in the past, and he has done that very, very little. He seems to enjoy breaking the mold, and I am not so sure that he’s not going to tweet from the Oval Office. I could be wrong.
PORTER: I like to remind students that more is not better. Better is better. That applies not only to us and our individual lives, it applies in spades to presidents. The more careful, cautious, strategic, and limited presidents are in what they choose to say, the more people pay attention to them. The more people believe what they have to say, the more power they are actually able to exercise. This is a lesson that most people have to learn experientially.
KING: The Republican Party is here to stay, the Democratic Party is here to stay, but the coalitions that support them, that make them up, shift over time. In Massachusetts in the 1950s the liberal party was the Republican Party. The conservative party, the Catholic party, was the Democratic Party. Is Trump the leader of the party? Yeah, of course. He’s the president of the United States. He’s a Republican, he has a Republican House and a Republican Senate. What does that mean for the party going forward? There is no national Republican Party, there is no national Democratic Party. There are 50 state Republican parties, there are 50 state Democratic parties, and they get together every four years and nominate a candidate. If we’re looking for coherence in a policy message from either party, we’re just looking in the wrong country.
KELLERMAN: I would argue that the more interesting party right now to look at is the Democratic Party—what it will be like after Hillary, what role Bernie Sanders is going to play or Elizabeth Warren is going to play. Is it really going to swing to the left, or is it going to remain the centrist party that it has been for a fair amount of time in recent years? There is no obvious leader on the Democratic side, and that to me will be at least as interesting as the Republican Party over the next four years, if not more so.
PORTER: One of the things that struck me in working in the White House and going to Capitol Hill was that pleading with people that the president really needs you on this carried practically no weight whatsoever. What moves people, what gets them to do what you would like them to do, is demonstrating to them that what you want them to do is going to benefit their constituents. They need to be able to go home and explain to people why they voted the way they did, why they supported this, or why they supported that. Saying that the leader of my party or the president of the United States or the speaker of the House asked me to do this is not viewed as a very acceptable answer. They don’t live in DC, they raise their own money when they go out to run, they do not view themselves as beholden to a political party. //