WASHINGTON — Think President Trump’s first 100 days were bumpy? Just wait for the 1,361 to follow.
It’s no surprise that Trump, who has been shattering political precedent since he announced his candidacy and then won the White House, would continue to break new ground once he moved into the Oval Office — though not always in a good way.
The courts have blocked his signature immigration ban. Congress has balked at delivering on his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The FBI is investigating Russian meddling in the election, an issue that forced the resignation of his national security adviser and is likely to cast a shadow over the administration for months or more. The public gives him record-low approval ratings for a new president.
Braced for bad reviews when Trump reaches the unofficial milestone Saturday, the White House has been pushing back on the idea that his first 100 days have been a bust.
“No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!” the president complained in an early-morning tweet Friday. A few days earlier, he bragged to a friendly audience at a manufacturing plant in Kenosha, Wisc, that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.” He’s announced a “BIG” rally next Saturday in Harrisburg, Penn.
He points to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the rollback of environmental and other regulations promulgated by the Obama administration as major achievements. He’s promised a flurry of activity over the next few days, including the release of a “massive” tax-cut plan Wednesday and a news conference on veterans’ care Thursday. (Republican congressional leaders resisted a White House suggestion to hold a vote on a revised health-care plan, though, warning it might not pass.)
Still, when press secretary Sean Spicer was asked at a briefing to name the most significant piece of legislation that actually had been enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress, he noted instead executive orders that had been signed and mentioned Gorsuch’s confirmation before finally citing a bill extending a program that helps veterans use health care providers outside the VA system.
Presidential historians and White House veterans say Trump has had one of the least productive first 100 days in office of any modern president, and there’s little dispute that he’s had the most tumultuous one.
The more important question is this: What does the president’s rocky beginning signal about the rest of his tenure?
President Trump speaks in the Oval Office on April 19, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP)
His associates argue that Trump has become more sure-footed in his new role, although he continues to resist advice to stop airing his grievances on Twitter. His national-security team seems to be settling in, though conflicting signals on Syria and Iran and a “miscommunication” about just where an aircraft carrier group was headed has cost them credibility. He’s ordered warring factions on the senior White House staff to work it out, or else.
But just what Trump will do on key issues, including several on which he staked out positions during the campaign, remains the subject of debate and dispute among his advisers — including decisions on precisely what the Obamacare replacement should include and whether to break out of the Iran nuclear deal. Just how he’ll manage to put together a governing coalition in Congress is unclear, with a test looming over passing a spending bill to avert a government shutdown at the end of the week.
He submitted nominations for just 24 of the 554 administration appointments requiring Senate confirmation, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service; 20 have been confirmed. That’s a small fraction of the number named by his predecessors; at this point, Obama had submitted 190 nominations and 69 had been confirmed. That slow pace has complicated efforts to set and implement policies in departments where the Cabinet secretary may be the only political appointee in the building.
And he has done little to win over voters who didn’t support him on Election Day.
In the Gallup Poll over the first quarter of the year, an average of 41% of Americans approved of the job he is doing as president, lower than the 46% who voted for him. His approval rating is 20 percentage points below the average for presidents at this point since Dwight Eisenhower. Trump trails every other modern president by double digits.
“At this point, I’d give him essentially a failing grade,” says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has written biographies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and others. His latest book, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, is being published in November. “There are no legislative accomplishments, zero” and his promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act “seems to be in suspended animation.”
Dallek says Trump’s claim of historic accomplishment has “an Alice in Wonderland” quality: “Does he know anything about what other presidents have done?”
At 100 days, Roosevelt had signed 15 major pieces of legislation as he sought to rally a nation reeling from the Great Depression. Barack Obama had pushed a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass bills that expanded children’s health care, bolstered equal-pay protections and provided $800 billion in stimulus spending. George W. Bush had submitted and won House approval for his big tax-cut package, on its way to enactment in June.
To be sure, other modern presidents also have stumbled at the start.
“Recall that JFK began his administration with the Bay of Pigs, which is pretty much the gold standard for early fiascos,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a top domestic-policy adviser in the Clinton White House. “Bill Clinton of course stumbled into the gays-in-the-military discussion, which was hardly the way he wanted to begin.”
With the benefit of hindsight, George W. Bush would be faulted for failing during his first months to respond decisively enough to warnings of a growing threat from al-Qaeda that would culminate in the terror attacks on New York and Washington in September.
The 9/11 attacks would define Bush’s presidency, a reminder that the opening months don’t always signal what’s ahead.
A learning curve?
President Trump walks up the steps of Air Force One in Milwaukee on April 18, 2017. (Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)
The question for Trump is whether the turmoil so far reflects an understandable learning curve or if it’s the predictable consequence of a leadership style that includes a certain comfort with chaos. His opening months in office have had an exhausting pace as he seems to careen from controversy to controversy — many of them generated not by outside developments but by internal conflicts and provocative tweets.
Christopher Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, served as a diplomat and State Department official in Democratic and Republican administrations from Jimmy Carter through Obama. Trump has gotten off to the slowest start on foreign policy and national security issues of any of them, he says. And the new president’s free-wheeling management style and rhetoric, sometimes at odds with the facts, is creating angst among allies and adversaries abroad.
“There is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed in the next 1,000 days, and that is the degree to which you can take the word of the president to the bank,” Hill says. “I think also there’s a question of the commitment to the institutions of our governance, and that is going to raise problems in future as foreign interlocutors need to decide if they need to talk to (son-in-law) Jared Kushner or the secretary of State.”
It’s not just foreign leaders. Some of Trump’s natural allies in Congress and elsewhere also are struggling with mixed signals from a president whose ties to his own party are patchy. He was nominated over the opposition of much of the Republican establishment, after all, and the populist and nationalistic policies he campaigned on were at odds with GOP orthodoxy on trade and other issues.
“Donald Trump is in effect an independent president, elected under a Republican banner,” Galston says. That makes the calculus of the next 1,361 days complicated indeed.