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The Trump Experiment Begins

Every presidency is an experiment in leadership, and the one that begins today is among the largest experiments in U.S. history.

It’s often observed that no one is prepared to be president, that every president must grow into the job. Donald Trump arguably enters the job from further back on the learning curve than any predecessor. He is the first president never to have served in any part of government, including the military. That’s a big element of his appeal to millions of supporters who are fed up with politicians and the world they’ve created. Trump is an outsider, not even one of those CEOs who like to visit Washington, influencing policy. As a businessman, however, his abilities and successes were as a dealmaker, not as a leader; visitors to the Trump Organization’s headquarters in Trump Tower are always surprised at how few people comprise his corporate staff.

So Trump takes charge of governing the world’s most powerful nation and largest economy with no government experience and slim credentials as a leader – not a promising résumé. But remember, no one is ever prepared. So what should we expect? The best insights I’ve seen come from two seasoned presidential historians, Richard Reeves and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In a book about John F. Kennedy as president, Reeves wrote, “He was not prepared for it, but I doubt that anyone ever was or ever will be. The job is sui generis. The presidency is an act of faith.” Reeves debunks most people’s expectations of a president by identifying “the most important fact about being president.” It’s this: “The toughest job in the world is essentially reactive. The president does not run the country and is not paid by the hour. He is there to respond to events unanticipated….”

History supports his view; think of Obama taking charge at the depth of the last recession, or Bush 43 responding to 9/11. Reeves notes, “Presidents are alone, facing the unknown. The job…is about leading the nation in unexpected crisis or danger. No one remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget.”

Goodwin, speaking on Tuesday in Michigan, mused on Trump’s insistence that he is always a winner; his ultimate insult seems to be “loser.” Yet she noted that Lincoln suffered from debilitating depression and endured multiple political defeats. Franklin Roosevelt was crippled by polio. From those experiences of loss they “learned patience and resilience.”

She is encouraged that several of Trump’s cabinet nominees are expressing views contrary to his in their confirmation hearings; conflicting views often lead to better decisions. Still uncertain is whether Trump fully knew of their views when he appointed them. Goodwin also offered a bit of advice from Lincoln, who often wrote “hot letters” to those who made him angry, but never sent them. Maybe Trump could set up a pretend Twitter account.

Reeves wrote in 2008, “No one knows what will be the issue that defines the next president.” That is always true; what makes this presidency one of the largest experiments in our history is that, more than in living memory, and regardless of what that defining issue may be, we have almost no idea how the new president will respond. Even more than past presidencies, this one is an act of faith.

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What We’re Reading Today

Treasury nominee fails to disclose $100 million in assets
On the day before President-elect Donald Trump‘s inauguration, Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin defended himself in his Senate confirmation hearing. Many of the questions focused on Mnuchin’s failure to disclose $100 million in real estate assets and a director role he holds at a Cayman Islands holding corporation. Mnuchin said the mistakes were oversights attributable to the complicated disclosure forms. ABC News

Theresa May says Britain will be a bastion of free trade
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister May said post-Brexit Britain will be a leader for businesses, negotiating free trade with the world. Days earlier May advocated leaving the EU’s single market, complicating Britain’s trade relationship with those countries. Sky News

China’s growth hits 26-year low
China said GDP jumped 6.7% last year, its slowest growth in 26 years. The government has long been suspected of inflating growth numbers, and earlier this week a Chinese province admitted it had inflated numbers by at least 20% from 2011 to 2014. China’s debt increase by 28% of GDP, its greatest increase in years. President Xi Jinping praised China’s economic stability at Davos earlier this week.  Fortune

Tesla’s Autopilot cleared in crash 
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cleared Tesla’s self-driving vehicle in a crash last year in which a driver using the feature drove into a semi-truck. NHTSA found that the driver failed to maintain control of the vehicle while using the feature, as Tesla instructs. Crash rates for vehicles from Elon Musk‘s company have dropped 38% since introduction of the Autopilot feature, which has only limited autonomous capability. Bloomberg

Building Better Leaders

Employee wellness programs may put employee health data at risk
Few controls regulate wellness program vendors, which can use surveys and medical exams to collect data that employers are prohibited from collecting. Harvard Business Review

Philadelphia to ban salary history queries in job interviews
Philadelphia would be the first U.S. city to enact such a ban. The city council has approved the measure, which now requires only the mayor’s signature, expected as early as Monday. Fortune

FedEx Office CEO Brian Philips says his battle with cancer…
…taught him to “take a breath and slow things down” when a crisis arises. D Magazine

Inauguration Day

Trump’s first act
At a luncheon with supporters yesterday, Trump said he would sign some “very meaningful” documents immediately after the inauguration. The signing of executive orders would continue into Monday and Tuesday, he said. His team has said he may sign policy-related orders in his first 12 hours as president, with immigration, Obamacare, and ISIS-related action getting highest priority. CNN

Preparing DC
About 900,000 people are expected to watch the inauguration, including a number of activists planning protests. The Secret Service will post 28,000 officers in the National Mall and surrounding areas; Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says his department will work to keep the various protesting groups separated.  Fortune

The day after
Some 200,000 people are expected to participate in tomorrow’s Women’s March on Washington; officials have prepared for as many as 400,000. Additional protests planned in cities across the country highlight the divisiveness Trump‘s administration faces from day one. WSJ

Up or Out

Hyperloop One has promoted Brent Callinicos to COO and CFO.  WSJ

Fortune Reads and Videos

IBM reports 19th straight quarterly revenue drop
While repeating that it’s doing the right things by investing in cloud computing and Watson, the company declined to predict when revenues would rise again. Fortune

President Trump will give up his Android smartphone…
…for security reasons. It’s unclear what will replace it; President Obama used one that couldn’t text or take photos. Fortune 

Samsung report says the Galaxy Note 7 fires were caused by…
…batteries that weren’t sized correctly and others with manufacturing defects. Fortune

India is considering giving 20 million citizens…
…free money. But the monthly $15 would be an interest-free loan to be repaid in three years. Fortune

Happy Birthday

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway turns 50 today.  Hollywood Life

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen turns 64 tomorrow.  Biography

Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman turns 61 on Sunday.  Delaware News Journal

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Produced by Ryan Derousseau