When he takes office on Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump will have something in common with Dwight Eisenhower—beyond the fact that neither was a politician before stepping into the presidency. That is, he’ll have both chambers of Congress in his own party. Not a bad place for a president to start, but one of Ike’s first lessons when he took office in 1953 was that members of his own party could sometimes be his harshest critics. In any case, Ike’s Republican Congress didn’t last. In a blink of an eye, the 1954 elections came and restored Democratic control. Ike was left to grapple with a Democratic Congress for the next six years. Top Republicans are well aware of this lesson today—“Nothing is forever in this country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned his giddy GOP colleagues on Nov. 9. The next election is less than two years away. As Ike might have advised, best to make friends where you can.
As I was researching and writing my new book Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, I was often struck by the ways in which Ike’s leadership style made collaboration possible to great effect. Ike had his share of opposition in Congress, but in his farewell address on Jan. 17, 1961, he described the relationship as “mutually interdependent.” Once off the campaign trail, which is a form of combat, a new president discovers that he actually has to work with these people.
It’s true that many partisans don’t have a high opinion of bipartisanship; some see it as a form of weakness. But President-elect Trump appears to be more pragmatic than ideological in his dealings. If he finds an opportunity to get elements of his agenda passed, most political watchers believe that he will cultivate support from both sides of the aisle. Were Eisenhower around to offer advice, he might suggest something like the following:
1. Don’t just preach to the choir
Eisenhower learned from military command that openness to contrary ideas is a virtue. In fact, it was a quality that he found lacking in General MacArthur, of whom he said, “He likes his bootlickers.” Eisenhower found that the best way to reach a wise conclusion was to get everybody in a room and let them debate an issue thoroughly. He wasn’t afraid of dissenting voices, and in fact he insisted that they be in the room and forcefully advocate their point of view. This process, which led to success on D-Day, also served him well in the White House.
During the election, Trump effectively formed a coalition well beyond the Republican base, including many disaffected workers who had once supported Obama. At the same time, he is known to prize loyalty, and he relies on a tight cadre of advisors. It’s unclear how the Trump White House will be run, but we can expect chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon will remain fierce guardians. However, Trump is unpredictable and always has a quality of independence that might make him surprisingly open to dissenting voices once he’s in office.
2. Nurture the opposition
Among the most frequent criticisms of President Barack Obama is his chilly relationship with Congress, even with his own party–but especially with those in the opposing party. Time and again, his aloofness seemed to exacerbate conflicts over policy. He joked about it at a White House Correspondent’s Dinner: “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ’Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” The joke fell flat in the room. His critics called it small and dismissive—the opposite of building bridges.
It’s a simple fact of human nature that people are more inclined to listen to you and even help you if they feel a personal connection. Ike could be a warm person but not overly so—in spite of his signature beaming grin. But he did have a gift of common humanity. He despised anything that smacked of imperiousness, and made a point of being accessible, telling his staff that if any member of Congress wanted to speak to him, they should be put through. Most famously, he formed a bond with Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. In what his chief of staff Sherman Adams described as “a bi-party convention in the upstairs Oval Room in the White House,” once a month Ike invited the two men over for drinks and canapés. This bonding—talking about issues in a friendly setting—was a key to Eisenhower’s success. Just as it was for Ronald Reagan, who liked to relax and smoke a cigar with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
Personally, Trump can be warm and gregarious. He clearly enjoys people. He can also be snappish and insulting when attacked. He calls himself “a big counterpuncher.” However, he has shown openness during the transition—as his public meetings with his most vicious detractor, Mitt Romney, demonstrated. Even though Romney did not apologize to Trump for his loud criticism during the campaign, and was not selected as secretary of state nominee, the meetings, we’re told, went a long way in mending the relationship. What the Romney affair shows is that Trump clearly has the ability to reach out—when he so chooses.
3. Exploit your opponent’s needs
Eisenhower once described leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” That may be a perfect description of effective bipartisanship. This principle was in play when Ike signed the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act to build the interstate highway system. The law was passed after years of partisan wrangling and failed proposals from both sides. But in the end, the right plan and the sheer national imperative brought the parties together to craft a bipartisan bill—during an election year, no less. One could see such a result if Trump follows through on his commitment to launch a massive infrastructure program. Already, there are signs that he may have Democratic support in Congress. The day after the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi cited Trump’s interest in investing in infrastructure. “We can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill,” she said. There are other openings. During the campaign Trump often cited points of agreement with Bernie Sanders, particularly over TPP, which no doubt won him some disaffected Bernie voters. And his recent moves with Carrier and other companies, instantly popular with working-class voters, might bring some Democrats to his side. Trump likes to win; and this could be his first win-win.
4. Use the bully pulpit wisely
One of the most powerful tools a president has at his disposal is the bully pulpit. He can speak to the nation directly and people will listen. Ike did not have a shoot-from-the-hip style. In fact, he was often criticized for his sluggish press conferences and his awkward television persona. Despite the criticism, Ike was the first president to allow his news conference transcripts to be quoted directly; the first president to allow news conferences to be recorded for TV and radio; and the first to allow them to be broadcast live. Eisenhower preferred to write and edit remarks, and on certain important occasions he gave speeches or addresses to the nation that had an enormous impact, and are still quoted today – like his farewell address.
Were he counseling Trump, Ike might suggest that less is more. A president’s words have power. Every time he speaks, the whole world takes note. Ike could never have imagined the technologies that instantly bring unformulated ideas to the public square. In fact, after he left the presidency, he could barely figure out how to get an outside line on his phone. In contrast, Trump has almost 19 million Twitter followers. It’s one thing to be a candidate reaching out to potential voters. It’s quite another to be speaking from the Oval Office. To be most effective, Eisenhower would likely advise Trump that there is value in waiting to speak until it really matters. No one can deny, however, that Trump’s Twitter feed has moved markets, changed daily news coverage and gotten attention from leaders around the world.
5. Steady as you go
During the transition to John F. Kennedy’s administration, Eisenhower took great pains to urge Kennedy to proceed cautiously. Ike well remembered the steep learning curve involved in becoming the leader of the free world. Kennedy wasn’t too interested in that advice; he had his own agenda and was determined to act swiftly and boldly. As a result, he had some early stumbles, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy himself conceded the stumbles when he called Ike for advice and then flew him to Camp David for face-to-face meetings.
It’s an old fashioned notion—as it was in 1961—but taking the time to get your ducks in a row can be the deciding factor between success and failure. When he was in danger of being overwhelmed, Ike often called on his experience as a military commander, and the lessons he had learned. In his diary, he repeatedly came back to them, like a guiding light at uncertain moments. As a successful businessman, Trump has his own hard-learned lessons to call on in times of doubt. A President Trump will surely be challenged by some major decision early in his term; Eisenhower would likely advise caution, balance and debate to become a calm, cool leader who rises above the chaos. The paperweight on Eisenhower’s Oval Office desk read, “Gently in Manner, Strong in Deed.” That’s a good motto for any president.