California Forum

What President Trump can learn from Gov. Brown

For a case study in public leadership, consider Gov. Jerry Brown. He has the weight of 39 million citizens and an economy larger than France’s behind him, and he has not hesitated to weigh in on global matters, most notably climate change.
For a case study in public leadership, consider Gov. Jerry Brown. He has the weight of 39 million citizens and an economy larger than France’s behind him, and he has not hesitated to weigh in on global matters, most notably climate change.

President Donald Trump has called the 100-days mark a “ridiculous standard” for judging his presidency. The number is arbitrary, no doubt. But there’s a larger purpose to the exercise. Effective managers jump at the opportunity to reflect on their early leadership and course-correct. What’s working? What’s not? What changes should I make, and where should I look for guidance?

If there’s one case study in public leadership for Trump to examine today, it’s Gov. Jerry Brown. The two leaders are profoundly different in more ways than we have space to enumerate, but important parallels exist.

First, Brown and Trump are chief executives of large territories with diverse populations. They oversee innovative, vibrant economies. From a political perspective, both work with legislatures controlled by their own party. But both also challenge party orthodoxy on fiscal matters. And while Trump sets the course of U.S. foreign policy, Brown – with the weight of 39 million citizens and an economy larger than France’s behind him – has not hesitated to weigh in on global matters, most notably climate change.

Put simply, no public office in the country comes closer to the Oval Office than the California governor’s office. And there is no one in U.S. politics today who has spent more time grappling with the complexity of governing than Brown. And that’s why Trump should take a pause, step back and study Brown’s leadership.

▪  Vision and values. The lessons from Brown start with values and vision. In Brown’s world, government service is a public trust. This trust depends on telling the truth, and it includes healthy measures of transparency and accountability. Brown knows government scandal erodes public trust. Avoiding cronyism and conflicts of interest is not just good policy but good politics, too.

▪  Big goals. Brown also understands the importance of leaders focusing on “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Put another way, he picks his spots for meaningful action. For instance, finding the balance between fiscal discipline and expansion of government services. This balance includes conservative spending measures such as the state’s $8 billion rainy day fund but also targeted tax increases, such as last month’s gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements.

▪  Consistency. Another Brown lesson involves consistency. Brown has worked to address climate change at every turn and for decades. Dating from to his 1970s Supreme Court arguments against big oil as California secretary of state, to his recent rallying cry – the pledge that that California will “launch its own damn satellite” if Trump stops climate data collection.

Trump has offered a lofty vision, but it is unclear if he can be consistent in its pursuit. Consider, for example, his shifting positions on China as a currency manipulator, or the U.S. commitment to NATO. How can the public know what Trump values, when his positions shift so sharply? This absence of accountability and transparency will create more distrust over time.

▪  Mastery of detail. Trump should take note of Brown’s inclination for detail and nuance in policymaking. Brown has shown time and again the value of knowing an issue, inside and out. Why is this important? Because when it comes to negotiating, knowing the details demonstrates expertise and confers power. When Brown speaks, allies and adversaries believe and trust him.

What message do you think Trump is sending when he’s arguing for a health care bill he doesn’t fully understand?: The issue doesn’t really matter to him. That’s not a strong position from which to negotiate.

▪  Management and delegation. Brown has proven adept at hiring, delegating, and making accountable an outstanding team of state leaders in the executive branch.

In his first three months in office, the Trump record is mixed. He has appointed some credible leaders in Defense and in the choice of his second national security adviser. Elsewhere his track record is poor. He has shown little ability to vet candidates, avoid conflicts of interest or fill hundreds of senior Cabinet agency positions. And the May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey reveals a dark inclination to remove from the administration voices of dissent or possible opposition.

Even worse, he has encouraged public infighting among White House staff. The infighting has led to frequent contradictions between senior staff commentary and eventual policy outcomes. Drawing a parallel to the image of a dragon eating its tail, one commentator called this the “Ouroboros of ineptitude.”

The United States remains the world’s largest single economy, the oldest, most vibrant democracy and most important military power. This status confers great influence on our president, but also a moral responsibility. Trump – and the American people – have a responsibility to signal to the world a commitment to democratic values, including the validity of our elections, separation of powers among branches of government and support for values such as freedom of expression and religion.

Trump, sadly, has undermined those hallmarks of democracy. He has diminished our moral standing the world. And his reliance on military power leaves us all in a more dangerous place.

In the final analysis, we, like many Americans, are not optimistic Trump will change his leadership style and adopt a Jerry Brown approach. So where does this leave us? We must ourselves adopt Brown’s example of honesty, humility and commitment to the core values of our democracy. We need many more Jerry Browns. We need to find them and elect them. Who would doubt our country’s capacity to accomplish this big goal?

David Beier is a managing director of Bay City Capital, a San Francisco venture firm, and can be contacted at Andrew Sullivan is a founding partner of Hudson Pacific, a political and public affairs strategy firm, and can be contacted at