“But This Time It’s Different”

Someone observed (and I can’t remember who now) that Presidents who were governors from small states often have a very rocky transition. I vaguely remember the troubles Bill Clinton had initially, and I drew some conclusions from that. For one thing, I tended to think that a new administration need people with experience in Washington. Even if the incoming president ran as an outsider, having some individuals who knew Washington and had experience running a White House, would be really important. Bush 43 and Obama seemed to ascribe to that approach, and whatever you think about their policies, both administration seemed to function fairly well. This only reinforced my stance.

Trump doesn’t seem to be adopting that approach, but Clinton didn’t do this, and Jimmy Carter may not have, either (and I understand the functioning of his administration was rocky). This raises a question: why did Clinton and Carter, two smart guys, eschew bringing in more experienced people? I’m pretty sure they received advice to hire people with Washington experience, but for whatever reason, they decided not to listen to that advice. The quote about governors from small states having difficult transitions may explain this. The idea is that these individuals were the Big Men on Campus, so to speak–they were smart and talented, maybe putting their colleagues in awe. Someone said that Carter, prior to getting to the White House, was always smartest person in the room. If this true, then this would probably mean that Carter’s way of doing things was usually successful, and if this was his experience, it would be very difficult to question this approach when going to the White House. If it always worked for him, why wouldn’t it work in the White House? When competent, well-meaning people advised him to choose some individuals with experience in Washington, Carter and Clinton may have brushed this off because other smart, well-meaning individuals gave similar advice, and not heeding it wasn’t a major problem. In a way, I think Trump could have had a similar experience. He’s 70 years old. He’s had success with the way he’s been doing things, so why should he change?

I tend to believe the issue came down to pride. Yes, on one hand, we can’t blame these individuals for ignoring the advice, and sticking to their guns. On the other hand, it seems wiser to at least consider that going to Washington is a totally different–more complex–situation. In a way, this also makes me think of Johnny Manzeil. He had a free-lancing style in college, and perhaps he didn’t diligently study game film–but he was wildy successful. Many knowledgeable people said that Manziel’s style wouldn’t work in the NFL–that he would need to be more disciplined, and learn to play from the pocket. I would guess he heard that in the transition from going to high school to college as well (I don’t think he was heavily recruited). Because of that, it seems unfair to blame them.

Manziel and these Presidents that came in with no previous experience in Washington, they have two choices in my view. First of all, they can basically think of themselves as the exception. “I know what people are telling me about the challenges, but I’m different,” they might think. And, really, you can’t really blame individuals like Carter, Clinton, Trump, or Manzeil for feeling this way. The other option is that they can seriously consider the advice of those who have experience in Washington. Here’s where I would think humility would come in, because they would basically have to consider that they may not be as exceptional as they thought–that maybe they have limitations that they’re not aware of; or, that the situation is totally different–specifically, more challenging–than any situation they have encountered in the past. Perhaps, expecting them to think this way is unreasonable because it’s outside of their experience.

A part of me still thinks this comes down to pride. Think about it. If the advice given is sound and actually proves true the vast majority of time, then the odds are that the advice will also be valid for the incoming president. Of course, there’s a chance that it won’t apply, because perhaps that incoming president is truly the exception. But the chances are probably very small. Thinking you’re different doesn’t seem like a very compelling argument against this. In fact, in similar situations, many people–including very smart and talented individuals–have thought the same thing, but struggled or even failed. I remember early in my career I believed that if I had a chance to get to the administrative level, I could possibly make a big difference. While others struggled or failed, I thought I had ideas that they did not–and these ideas would make the difference. That is, I thought I was different; so things would be different. But over time, I came to realize that I wasn’t that different, or that this difference wouldn’t matter relative to other existing challenges. My problem was a lack of experience and lack of knowledge. But I also feel like the problem related to my pride as well. If I were more humble–assuming that I was probably missing crucial information–then I would have had a wiser outlook. In the case for incoming Presidents, a more humble and wiser approach could mean the difference between an administration that is functional and effective versus one that is dysfunctional and a mess.

So what’s the takeaway, here? To me–and I direct this especially at young people–one should consider that one’s ignorance is much more profound and significant than one imagines. Because of that, one shouldn’t place a lot of trust in one’s knowledge at the time–especially if one is entering a novel situation or beginner. In such situations, it seems arrogant to not be more circumspect and cautious with regard to one’s understanding and knowledge. To me, this is a wise approach worth considering.

2 Responses to ““But This Time It’s Different””


  1. Mitchell

    This doesn’t change your point in any way, but I think with Carter it was different. The previous elected president left office in shame, something that never happened before and hasn’t happened since. The country wanted a peanut farmer, and I suspect Carter felt an obligation to do it a different way. Not that pride wasn’t also part of that; every elected president had pride coming out of his eyeballs, I’m sure.

  2. Reid

    My sense is that the country wanted someone with integrity, someone honest, which, in my view, is not related to have experience and knowledge in Washington. On the other hand, perhaps, the people didn’t want an administration with any strong ties to Washington, given the scandals of the Nixon administration. That could have been a factor in Carter’s selection of his staff.

    Still, many outsider Presidents experience the same thing (although, to be fair, maybe not to the same degree). Obama also faced this situation, but he chose people like Timothy Geitner for his Treasury Secretary and took heat for it. Because of what happened in the initial phase of the Clinton administration, I didn’t have a problem with this.

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