Running the government with no government experience: Another first for team Trump

Donald Trump liked to say this fall that Hillary Clinton had only "bad experience" in government. Soon, Americans will start learning how that compares to virtually none.

By tapping Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson for secretary of State, the president-elect has moved to fill the six top jobs in his administration. The team he assembled has less government experience than any in recent presidential history — by far.

For the White House, Trump has picked Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser. To stock his Cabinet, he picked finance executive Steven Mnuchin for the Treasury Department, Ret. Gen. James Mattis for the Pentagon and Tillerson for State.

Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally in Miami, Florida.
Mike Segar | Reuters

Like Trump, all lack any experience in civilian government service. The only top choices who do are Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, and Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who was selected for Energy secretary on Wednesday.

That's far different from the initial teams selected by any of the last five presidents.

Every one of the top six appointees by Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush boasted previous government service. In Bill Clinton's White House, only his first chief of staff, Mack McLarty, an Arkansas energy executive, had not worked in government before; in Ronald Reagan's, only Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, who had run Merrill Lynch, had never worked in government.

Moreover, Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush had all spent years as governors of their states. The elder Bush had served in Congress, run the CIA and been U.S. envoy to China.

In some ways, the absence of government experience by Trump and much of his team fits the public mood. On Election Day, two-thirds of voters told exit pollsters they feel either dissatisfied or angry at the federal government. More than experience or judgment, they identified ability to "bring change" as the most important quality in the next president.

During the campaign, Trump bluntly attacked the competence of recent presidents and their staffs. The billionaire real estate tycoon promised to improve on government's performance after three decades of stagnated middle-class incomes and persistent national security woes.

Now Trump's task is making the gears of a complex federal apparatus turn in ways that convert his rhetoric — on issues from cutting government waste to overhauling the tax system to implementing a new strategy against ISIS — into the changes voters want.

"The problem is simply enormous," said Donald Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. The need to manage public opinion, reach accommodations with Congress and navigate the federal bureaucracy presents challenges unlike those that corporate executives or military commanders have to grapple with.

The absence of government experience doesn't mean a Cabinet secretary can't be effective. Kettl cited the strides made by former auto executive Robert McNamara in overhauling management of the Pentagon after President John F. Kennedy made him Defense secretary in the 1960s. But Kettl added that it increases the importance of selecting deputies who know enough to follow through and implement new policy commitments.

The issue extends well beyond the top echelons of the new administration. Trump is sending Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development with no experience in housing policy. Restaurant executive Andrew Puzder, his choice for Labor secretary, and philanthropist Betsy DeVos, his would-be Education secretary, haven't served in government. Nor has wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who's headed for the Small Business Administration.

Editor's note: This story was updated with the selection of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Energy secretary.