Presidents have long liked to play the blame game. In his early State of the Union addresses, Ronald Reagan blamed the economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter. Barack Obama, who frequently spoke of the economic crisis unfolding as he took office, was called the “blamer in chief” by conservative media; in mid-2009, the New York Times suggested that tactic would not work for very long, reasoning at some point a president must take responsibility for the problems before him.
But President Trump has shown unusual range in the number of people and institutions he’s targeted in his first weeks in office: He’s blamed the Democrats for delaying his Cabinet picks. The “low-life leakers” are a “big problem,” Trump tweeted. It was during the Obama administration that “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia,” asking “was Obama too soft on Russia?” amid inquiries into his own team’s contacts with Russian officials. Massive voter fraud is to blame for him losing the popular vote, Trump has claimed, despite no evidence to support it.
The press, meanwhile, has taken the brunt of his ire, as he blames the “FAKE NEWS” media he now calls “the enemy of the people” for characterizing his transition as chaotic or revealing details about his phone calls with world leaders. In a bizarre and combative news conference last week, Trump repeatedly said he “inherited” a “mess.”
One month into Donald Trump’s presidency – as Americans celebrated the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with a three-day weekend of ski trips and furniture sales – seems as good a moment as any to reflect on Trump’s repeated early tactic of pointing the finger elsewhere. Not only does it stand in opposition to what we traditionally expect from people in a position of leadership. Its effectiveness also has its limits.
For Trump, it began on day one, when he declared in a dark inaugural address that “the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” That description seemed to depict a gutted America that had been led until then by the “establishment” in Washington that had “reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
It has continued on Twitter, as Trump has taken turns blaming the media for their coverage of his administration, a Democratic senator for “misrepresenting what [Supreme Court nominee] Judge Gorsuch told him,” and the department store Nordstrom for treating his daughter “unfairly.” He has even told his followers where to put the blame for future events: On Feb. 5, after U.S. District Judge James Robart put Trump’s executive order on immigration on hold, the president wrote on Twitter that he “just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The finger pointing showed up in force during a grievance-filled news conference last week, when Trump repeated how he “inherited a mess”: “It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country.” When pressed on his false claim that he had the largest electoral college victory margin since Reagan, Trump even blamed his aides. “Well, I don’t know, I was given that information,” he said.
At this point, we are well-versed with the idea that Trump’s behavior runs counter to what nearly anyone would consider “presidential.” One month in, Trump is still in campaign mode, fighting old foes and talking about his win. An ethos of restraint and “buck stops here” responsibility-taking that people have traditionally associated with the office – correctly or not – has given way to an ego-filled, score-settling environment where the president takes aim in 140-character blasts.
Meanwhile, one of the most universally touted tenets of business management advice is that taking responsibility when things go wrong and giving credit to others when things go right is a hallmark of strong leadership. Casting blame doesn’t just hurt outside relationships; it sets a tone at the top that impedes risk-taking and creates a climate of fear that can slow down progress.
It should come as no surprise that a man who has ignored so many other management and leadership maxims would look past this one. From the value of dissent to the need for getting buy-in from senior team members to the importance of nurturing the morale of front-line workers, the president who was supposed to bring a businessman’s sensibilities simply isn’t using the same playbook most CEOs today espouse.
The question for Trump, as the Times asked eight years ago of Obama, is how long the blame game will work. Obama, after all, was bequeathed a real economic disaster — a global financial crisis and the worst recession since the Great Depression — while Trump inherited an economy that is stable and growing, if uneven for some workers.
Trump’s direct attacks on the press, sowing disbelief, may buy him time among his supporters. His bullying from the ultimate pulpit may cheer his base. But at some point, leaders go from “inheriting a mess” to actually owning it. When that happens, pointing fingers becomes a lot harder to do.