Another round of bomb threats on Jewish Community Centers and Jewish schools was reported Monday. While fortunately none of the threats so far has turned into a real bombing, just the threats — at least 69 through last week — are shaking up the Jewish community, along with the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
Donald Trump hasn’t paid much public attention to this, for whatever reason. Whether that’s offensive in some abstract sense is a question I’ll leave to others for now.
Good presidenting, however, requires more than just managing to make adequate public statements.
If we assume he’s been as indifferent to the bomb threats in private as he has been in public, he’s taking a big risk. Suppose, after all these warnings, that people are eventually killed in an attack. People are going to ask: What was the president doing about it all these weeks? And Trump better have an answer for that question.
Can presidents make a difference? Absolutely.
One of the best examples we have is the “millennium” terrorist plot, in which the Bill Clinton administration picked up rumors of a major attack coming. Clinton focused the executive branch on the potential attack by insisting that department secretaries and others at the top of relevant agencies report to him daily about what they had done to prevent terrorism — which meant that they in turn pushed the bureaucracy below them to come up with something new and impressive-sounding to report.
Of course, a president cannot use that tactic, at that level, all the time. And without presidential pressure, the bureaucracy won’t necessarily do anything about a problem that comes to the president’s attention. Richard Neustadt quotes one of Franklin Roosevelt’s aides about how cabinet secretaries typically respond:
“Half of a President’s suggestions, which theoretically carry the weight of orders, can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member. And if the President asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated. If he asks a third time, a wise Cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests, but only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do Presidents ever get around to asking three times.”
“Three times” might not literally always be the case, but we can use it to stand for the basic fact that the executive branch won’t always automatically do what the president asks. It requires active engagement from the White House, and (for best results) from the president himself.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that a big part of presidenting is knowing which things are worth asking about three times. We don’t know everything that’s happening, but there’s no evidence so far that Trump is even vaguely aware that such crucial decisions must be made at all.
How can a president decide which emerging challenges need attention and resources? One question the president must ask himself is how high he wants something to be on his agenda.
Pushing an agency or multiple agencies on one thing uses resources (theirs, and his own) that therefore can’t be used for other priorities. Something new that comes along, then, might distract from items the president’s supporters expect him to focus on. That’s a cost, especially for a new president who has promised swift changes on everything from immigration and trade to national security and infrastructure.
Another question, however, is about the risks for ignoring something. Should an actual attack follow, organized groups, the media, and perhaps even Congress will ask tough questions about what exactly the federal government did in response to the threats we’ve seen so far. If the answer is that the president did little or nothing, it will be a scandal, perhaps a major one.
To balance those things, presidents need to be expert at gathering clues from the various sources of information available to them — which is one reason why good presidenting requires absorbing as much information, from as many good sources, as possible.
The need to have well-honed political instincts, too, to calibrate the various costs and risks (and benefits) involved. They obviously need, too, to have a good sense of their own preferred agenda and how much persuasion relevant departments and agencies will need to keep that agenda moving forward.
In other words, the question of whether and how often to ask three times isn’t an easy one at all in many cases. But it sure seems to me that this is a case in which the risks of inaction to the president (not to mention, of course, the affected communities) are unusually high.
Perhaps Trump is more active behind the scenes than he’s willing to be in public, but if not, what is he waiting for?
Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.