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Commentary: Donald Trump's ceremonial presidency

Perhaps the presidency, at least when it's in the hands of someone who does not know how to use it, is less important than we thought.

Despite Republican control of both houses of Congress, it's inarguable that Donald Trump's presidency has so far been remarkably ineffective. With the failure of the Obamacare repeal, it's increasingly likely that he will end his first year in office without any real legislative accomplishments.

Trump, for all his tough-guy, get-it-done rhetoric, appears more and more like a ceremonial head of state, albeit one without a highly attuned sense of ceremony. He talks big, makes sweeping promises. And yet it all seems to come to nothing. His contempt for behavioral norms notwithstanding, his is a presidency oddly marked by stasis.

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The government, of course, still functions. The cabinet secretaries and the legislature do their jobs, more or less. The social security checks are still sent out. Our military, guided by H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, still conducts operations across the globe. The economy Trump inherited continues its impressive, if uneven, growth.

Meanwhile, the president appears wholly consumed with the palace drama currently being staged in his White House, and the numerous investigations he cannot escape. His obsession with loyalty leaves him unable to staff his administration, with dozens of top jobs still vacant across the executive branch.

Trump obviously makes news. He delights in symbolic populism and the rallies he still holds. His tweets still interrupt the cable news broadcasts he compulsively watches. Yet, as a practical matter, none of what he does has much real effect.

The travel ban? Eviscerated by the courts. That transgender military ban no one asked for? It might never materialize. An infrastructure bill or tax reform? Maybe next year.

In the past, when faced with hostile congresses, presidents like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush tried to make their big impact through foreign policy. That's where modern presidents have the most leeway, with Congress having outsourced many of its responsibilities in that area to the White House.

But Bush and Nixon were Republicans facing down Democratic congresses, while Trump is a Republican dealing with a weak Democratic Party. And in a marked departure from what he campaigned on, Trump has fully embraced the GOP's agenda. When it came to an issue like health care, he made it clear he'd sign whatever his Republican colleagues gave him. Still no luck.

Trump doesn't know how to work legislators, and doesn't seem interested in learning. Asked last week by the Wall Street Journal how he had tried to assist in the repeal of Obamacare, the man who ran as the world's best negotiator launched into a riff on how the Boy Scouts love him. When it comes to strong-arming Congress, Trump makes Barack Obama look like Lyndon Johnson.

Amazingly, Trump even seems to have lost control of his own foreign policy. His central proposal on the subject during the 2016 campaign was a better relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Yet seven months into his presidency, our relationship with Moscow is worse than at any time since the Cold War.

On Wednesday, Trump meekly signed a sweeping sanctions bill, passed with a veto-proof majority, targeting Moscow. The bill also strips his ability to lift the sanctions without congressional approval. He complained about that provision, of course, in a statement accompanying his signature.

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With Trump, the buck always stops somewhere else. He could do better, he insists, but they won't let him. "I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars," his statement concludes, with a typically egocentric non-sequitur. "That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress."

Trump cares about being liked. He cares about being respected. He cares about everyone knowing how much he is supposedly worth, and how he won the election against the odds, and how Russia had nothing to do with that outcome. But so far, he has shown no signs that he truly cares about governing the country.

Of course, Trump or no Trump, the presidency is still important in terms of buoying national morale and serving as a unifying force in times of great distress. That remains an essential facet of the job.

In some other Western democracies, like Great Britain or the Netherlands, this role is allotted to the otherwise powerless monarchs who serve as head of state. In America, however, the Constitution says our head of state is also our head of government. And it's the latter that Trump seems particularly uninterested in.

Trump relishes the pomp and circumstance that comes with being a head of state; he wanted his inauguration to include a grand parade of military might, one of his many passing ideas that have been shot down by those who know better. He enjoys the meetings with foreign leaders at the White House. He likes calling them up, he told the Journal, and asking how many people live in their countries: "[Y]ou call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it's pretty amazing how many people they have."

Under Trump, we have seen a great divergence between what personally interests the president and what is going on in the country he's been elected to lead. That could change; at this point in George W. Bush's presidency, it's worth remembering, we were only five or so weeks out from 9/11.

Sparing such a catastrophe, Trump shows us that a president can choose to just glide along leave the important stuff to other people. He can, for the moment at least, indulge in not taking it seriously -- to function, in fact, as a ceremonial president.

Perhaps he gets lucky. Perhaps the looming threats from abroad simmer out, the economy continues to hum along to a tune of benign indifference, and the Democrats remain too hapless to retake the government.

All of that is possible. Then again, at some point, everyone's luck runs out. 

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