Some of the most important jobs of the Presidency are unofficial ones. These unofficial jobs include being the figurehead for his or her political party, being a role model for the citizens to follow, or harnessing a technique called “jawboning” to forward his or her agenda.
What is jawboning? Jawboning is where a President uses their position of power to persuade, force, or threaten companies, individuals, and countries to act a certain way. Lyndon B. Johnson was famous for his expert ability at jawboning that he had refined during his tenure in the Senate. Johnson would essentially bully fellow senators and congressman until they caved. It was Johnson’s expert jawboning ability that allowed him to push through the contentious Civil Rights Act in 1964, for example. All Presidents have used jawboning in some form or another to get what they want. Some, like Johnson, are famous for their jawboning prowess; others, like Jimmy Carter, are infamous for their inability to truly master the technique.
Why is it called jawboning? Like many political terms, “jawboning” is a reference to a story in the bible. In this story, Samson, using the jawbone of a donkey, beat to death 1000s of his enemies at once. Such an origin for the term makes sense as when Presidents jawbone they are essentially pushing through their agenda through sheer force.
Here is a quick hypothetical example:
President Smith invites freshman Congressman Bob into the oval office. Bob, being a new and unknown Congressman from a small town, has little political experience and is clearly out of his element. President Smith walks in surrounded by aides and secret service members and is late (likely on purpose to put Bob on edge). Smith gets close to Bob and tells him he is extremely disappointed in Bob’s decision not to support an upcoming bill. Smith tells Bob it would be a shame if he had to funnel some of his PAC money into a primary challenger against Bob just because Bob refuses to vote a certain way on an upcoming bill. So if you were Bob, what would you do? Likely fold and do what the President wants, no one wants to make enemies with the most powerful man in Washington, if they can help it. This situation may sound over dramatic and cliché, but this is actually what happens. These types of situations are a big part of the Presidency.
For example, in 1993 Bill Clinton was one vote away from passing his economic plan, containing tax increases, through the house. First time Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinky had run on a platform promising no tax increases for her constituents. On the day the vote was scheduled, the Congresswoman publically told her constituents that she would vote against the bill. When voting time came, it appeared Clinton would be one vote short for his economic plan, but Margolies-Mezvinky stunned her colleagues when she ended up voting for the bill. So, what happened? Right before the vote was about to begin Clinton called her on the phone “asking” for her support.
Margolies-Mezvinky knew that voting for his bill was a bad idea. She told Clinton on the phone that, “I think I’m falling on a political sword on this one.” Yet she still did what Clinton asked. Why? Because Clinton used the technique of jawboning to get her on his side. Margolies-Mezvinky says he promised to attend a conference in her district regarding reducing the deficit. He may have also made some threats or tried to intimidate her as well. Regardless, Clinton got his way and Margolies-Mezvinky became a one-term congresswoman, losing her re-election because she voted yes on the aforementioned bill. This is the importance of jawboning.
So why talk about this? Well, after enduring 7 months of a Trump Presidency it seems to be painfully obvious that Trump does not understand how jawboning works. Jawboning is something done in private. Tweeting threats at people only strengthens their resolve, because if they cave in, it will make them appear weak to the public. If they cave in private, though, their image can survive. When Trump calls out Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on twitter for not voting “yes” on the Obamacare repeal he has only shot himself in the foot. Such a public threat only makes Murkowski less likely to give in for fear of being labeled a coward. Or, when Trump publically attacks his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation it only makes Sessions more likely to stick to his original decision. If Trump wanted to force people to act a certain way he should be jawboning them in private, not in public.
Even when Trump jawbones in private, he still does not seem to get it. For example, let us look at the conversation Trump and the former FBI director James Comey had over dinner. During this conversation, Trump constantly demanded that Comey essentially pledge his loyalty to him. This approach Trump used with Comey is incredibly flawed.
Firstly, constantly demanding loyalty from an FBI director only makes you seem insecure. A big part of jawboning is making your victim view you as competent. If the person you are trying to jawbone finds you to be desperate how can you possible intimidate him or her?
Secondly, the process of jawboning requires a deep knowledge of the workings of government in order to realize what forms of intimidation are appropriate and what forms of intimidation can come back to bite you. The FBI, for example, is a powerful government organization that Presidents have always done their best to avoid upsetting. Politicians do not mess with the FBI, that is one, of many, unspoken rules in Washington. Yet here Trump is, meeting one on one with the director of the FBI thinking it is a good idea to demand his loyalty.
The reasons for Trump’s failure at jawboning individuals and entities is clear: Trump, with no political experience, fails to realize that he is the President of the United States, not its Chief Executive Officer.
Trump likely expected the President to be the “boss” of the United States, overseeing the judicial, executive, and legislative branches. Trump likely expected little friction in his job of Presidency, believing that if he told an elected politician or government official to do something, they would do it; no questions asked. What Trump failed to realize is that our founding fathers specifically created our government to produce as much friction as possible and make it incredibly difficult for one person (the President) to push through a personal agenda.
So what is the most common way to overcome friction in government? Oftentimes you just need to push harder or, like I said before, “jawbone.” When Trump tells someone that he has no power over to do something and they disobey, Trump, not knowing what to do, flounders and goes on a twitter rant, which only makes things harder for himself. Trump has lived his whole life as a business executive where if you found someone’s performance unsatisfactory or someone is being disobedient you can just fire them. Trump, as President, cannot fire a Senator he does not like; he cannot fire an FBI director without drawing media attention and burning bridges.
When Johnson faced opposition during his time in the Senate and the Presidency he did not flounder like Trump has. Instead, Johnson faced the challenge head on, often times quite literally.
As previously mentioned, Johnson was famous for jawboning Senators into voting a certain way through a technique referred to now as, “The Johnson Treatment.” Let us look at a description of this “Treatment” by two journalists below:
“The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself—wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach.
Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless”
When Trump tries to intimidate and control senators, though, he goes about it as if he was a C.E.O., not a President. Take for example a lunch he hosted with Republican Senators on July 19 where he hoped to convince them all to vote “yes” on the Obamacare repeal. During the lunch, Trump told the senators he wanted them to repeal Obamacare and that if they did not, voters from their home states would be unhappy with them. Besides that small threat, though, Trump is still not getting it. Trump is not in charge of the Republican Senators; he is not their “boss.” The senators do not have to do what Trump wants, just because he tells them to. Reminding the Senators that they may lose their re-election if they do not vote for the repeal is a good start, but such threats should be done in private where the Senators can be better intimidated, not in a public forum surrounded by their colleagues.
Yes, there is a possibility that Trump is meeting with these Senators individually and is attempting to jawbone them there. Such a counter-argument, though, is a moot point. Even if Trump is jawboning people individually, in private, he is clearly not very good at it, given that during his 7 months in office he has had practically a 100% failure rate in controlling the government.
Ultimately, Trump’s biggest flaw is nothing hidden or obscure. Trump is a political outsider; he lacks the experience and expertise to effectively push through his agenda. It would be foolish to think inexperience in law makes a good lawyer or inexperience in medicine makes a good doctor. Inexperience in politics, then, does not make a good President, especially in regards to Trump who appears to have left his jawbone at home.