The Wheatley Institution

Harvard Professor speaks on Politics and Presidents

February 6, 2017 | Katie Eldredge

Roger B. Porter, described as “a committed public servant,” is an expert on business and government policy. As Harvard University’s IBM Professor of Business & Government, a former Assistant to the President for Economic and Domestic Policy, and a senior White House economic policy expert, he is well informed on US governmental processes. Perhaps more important that any of these, however, is that Porter provides the kind of unbiased analysis of the presidential election that has been hard to come by in recent months.

In his Wheatley Forum, “Understanding the 2016 Election & its Consequences,” Porter addressed why this election was unlike any before it. He began with the basic differences. Over the “last 30 presidential elections, in all but 6, there has been an incumbent president or incumbent vice president on the ballot,” but for the first time this was not the case. It was also “the first time we had someone elected who had never served in the executive, legislative, or judicial governments.” He asked the audience, “We’re doing something that we’ve never done before in history. Shouldn’t we be surprised by the outcome?”

Porter offered his “alternating party of government theory” as one possible explanation for President Trump’s win. After two terms of a president from the Democratic Party, “one could make the argument it was the Republican’s turn.”

Another explanation was the appeal of a “change candidate.” Typically after a two-term president, the American people are looking for a candidate who will offer leadership and solutions completely opposite the last. “We had 79% of the electorate that when surveyed, felt the country was on the wrong track. And therefore, the ‘change candidate’ was going to have a lot going for them.” President Trump was that candidate.

Porter then turned to what to watch for in the new administration, describing “3 Keys of Transition” any new presidential team should be tending to. The first key of transition is people. “President Trump’s cabinet consists of people with little, if any, government experience. However, they are very talented in and have succeeded in their respective areas of expertise.”

The second key of transition is policies. When first entering the White House, a successful presidency will first “attend to the long-term rather than the short-term” priorities. According to Porter, presidents “with successful policies have maintained their flexibility by limiting the number of promises made during the election process.”

The third key of transition? Processes. Determining how decisions will be made, who will oversee them, and how they will be implemented is essential to a smooth start. “If people are uncertain of [a presidential decision] because the process has been chaotic then the process of implementing it is much more difficult.” Effective processes “sift and sort what decisions are governmental decisions and which are presidential decisions.”

Porter concluded that the most successful presidents are “not driven by the expediency of the moment but by a clear vision of where they want to go and prepared to take however long it takes to get there.” Just as the 2016 election was unlike any before it, President Trump’s next four years may be unlike any we have seen before.

Watch Roger Porter's entire lecture here.

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