- - Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Donald Trump successfully ran against the Republican establishment. Can he now successfully govern with it? The answer will determine his presidency’s fate. Regardless of how much President Trump can do through executive action — and he has started off sprinting — governing means working with Congress to legislate. A presidency is like a marathon. It requires endurance — even when you know you could go faster.

The Constitution’s checks and balances ensures the president and Congress will have both a complimentary and complicated relationship. The president is elected nationally, but that national election is actually a series of local elections. Members of Congress are elected locally but Congress — by virtue of being comprised of 535 local elections nationwide — as an entity is elected nationally, too.

The legislative process exemplifies their complicated relationship. Congress is the legislative branch, but for legislation to become law, the president must concur or Congress must override his veto. And once law enacted, it is the president’s role to implement it.

In these and in other ways, the two are thrust together. And if the government is to function at its best — and as intended — the two need to work together.

The relationship between the new Congress and the new president has not started off well.

Mr. Trump won his nomination, and then the White House, by running against the establishment. The first portion of that establishment is the Republicans, who now hold majorities in both bodies of Congress. The second portion is the Democrats, who now are a sizable opposition party in both congressional bodies.

The establishment was not welcoming of Mr. Trump. First the Republicans and then the Democrats did all they could to defeat him. Since his victory, even Republicans have been tepid in their embrace.

So to their complimentary and complicated relationship, the president and Congress bring an uncustomary level of conflict as well. Yet despite this, the two — particularly Mr. Trump and the congressional Republican majorities — need to work together for their own sakes as well as the government’s. To understand why, we need look no further than Mr. Trump’s immediate predecessor.

Barack Obama found out the hard way the limits of going it alone in Washington. The executive branch’s authority has its limits. Despite expanding them greatly and using them aggressively, Mr. Obama’s tenure will eventually be looked upon objectively as one of squandered potential.

Mr. Obama can point to Obamacare and Dodd-Frank as accomplishments of his presidency. However even here, Mr. Obama’s inability to work with Republicans cost him bipartisan support — and both accomplishments look likely soon to suffer for it in this Congress.

And after his first midterm election, when he suffered a debacle and Democrats lost the House, his legislative accomplishments for the most part ended. For his last six years — three-quarters of his presidency — he governed without Congress.

As a result, Mr. Obama’s ability to govern paled in comparison to other Democratic presidents with similar electoral mandates. Mr. Obama was the first Democrat to win two terms with popular vote majorities since FDR. And he won the largest popular vote majority of any Democrat since LBJ. Yet, Mr. Obama was neither Roosevelt nor Johnson in terms of governing, precisely because he never approached their ability to work with Congress.

Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress start behind where Mr. Obama and Democrats did in 2009. He won the White House but lost the popular vote, so Mr. Trump has less political capital than Mr. Obama did. In Congress, Republicans’ 52-seat Senate majority and 241-seat House majority are well behind Democrats’ 57 Senate seats and 256 House seats in 2009.

However Republicans may actually benefit from their comparatively weaker position. In this case, necessity may be the mother of cooperation. In 2009, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats were both strong in their own right. This strength may have served to encourage complacency and independence. Republicans in 2017 do not suffer from such comparative strength — perhaps they will avoid Democrats’ earlier faults.

The formula for Republicans winning in 2017, as they did in 2016, is simple. Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans need each other.

As Mr. Obama proved in reverse, in Washington success means governing together. It means making laws. Despite all the attention Mr. Obama’s unilateral approach and executive orders gathered, nothing is as effective — or enduring — in propagating policy as legislation. To produce it, Mr. Trump and the Republican majority must work together.

It would be all too easy for the new president to fall victim to Mr. Obama’s mistake. Taking the quick way of governing alone is comparable to trying to run a marathon as a sprint. Bursts of speed have their place in any race — and in any presidency. However, relying on speed for an extended duration gives only the illusion of success. While how you start is important, even more is how you finish.

• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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