He has shaken up Washington, despite achieving few legislative victoriesby / April 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
“I’ve done more than any other president in the first 100 days,” Donald Trump boasted in a recent interview, a remark betraying breath-taking ignorance of history. This rhetorical pomposity makes it tempting to dismiss his early record as insignificant, but that would be to underestimate what the 45th president has done to change Washington DC. If Trump can build on this foundation beyond the artificial 100-day mark, his could be a consequential presidency, but he will need to up his game significantly for this to happen.
However shocking his antics to foreign eyes—and many American ones—Trump has restored the presidency to political pre-eminence after years in which it was hamstrung by partisan polarisation. He has redefined the style of the office to dominate headlines, set the policy agenda, and frame the terms of political debate. Accordingly, he has followed through on his promise to shake up Washington, but he will soon need to add substance to his style. Trump faces a problem in this regard: most presidents make progress on key legislation in their first year when their popularity is usually at its peak, but Trump has the lowest average Gallup approval rating for the first 100 days on record—41 per cent compared to 55 per cent for Bill Clinton, the next lowest, and 74 percent for the top-rated John F Kennedy.
Trump has what can best be termed a spotty record of delivery on the unrealistically ambitious promises for his first 100 days in his pre-presidential “Contract with the American Voter,” issued at Gettysburg on 22nd October last. This two-page document contained 38 promises, 10 of which have been delivered so far. Arguably his two most significant achievements have been to restore conservative ascendancy on the Supreme Court through the successful nomination of Neil Gorusch as Associate Justice, and the withdrawal of the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Trump has mainly advanced his agenda through issuance of executive orders. Often overlooked, however, is that he has signed twelve pieces of legislation enacted by congressional Republicans under the provisions of the Congressional Review Act permitting rescindment of executive orders by earlier presidents. The combined effect has been a substantial clawback of Obama administration rules pertaining in particular to immigration, firearms control, energy, environmental issues, education, and healthcare.
In contrast Trump has made virtually no progress on the ten legislative promises in his 100-day “Contract.” In a face-saving gesture, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveiled plans on Day 98 for corporation tax cuts and tax breaks for multinationals repatriating capital held abroad, but offered nothing on the corollary promise of a massive middle-class tax cut. Trump’s quixotic plan to have Mexico pay for the “big, beautiful Border Wall” has run into reality, necessitating a request to Congress for interim US funding for its construction, but the Democrats have sufficient Senate votes to block this. Republican legislators’ failure to agree a bill to replace Obamacare represents Trump’s biggest defeat to date. The president’s plaintive comment after this fiasco attested to the inexperience of his White House operation: “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.”
Despite single-party control of government, legislation takes time to formulate, involves bargaining and compromise to enact, and requires the support of a skilful public campaign by the president. If Trump wants to be remembered as a consequential president, he will need to build a legislative record—but doing so requires him to learn from his mistakes so far.
International attention is far more focused on Trump’s foreign policy, of course. On that front, inconsistent, incoherent and impulsive are the readiest descriptors of his record so far. Trump’s rendezvous with global reality has seen him move away from his “America First” campaign rhetoric badmouthing NATO, cosying up to Russia, promising non-intervention in Syria, and calling for root-and-branch reform of NAFTA.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrated his change of tone than dealings with China: the avowal to declare it a currency manipulator on Day one of his presidency fell by the wayside and instead of the promised “McDonald’s hamburger” and humble pie, President Xi-Jinping got a sumptuous dinner at their Mar-a-Lago meeting. Is there a Trump Doctrine emerging from all this? The strike against Syria, the dropping of the MOAB on Al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan, and missile-defence construction in South Korea suggest that Trump is willing to use America’s preponderance of power to defeat its enemies. He evidently has deep admiration for the military as the instrument to get things done in the world, with the consequence that Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster have emerged as important actors in his administration.
If there is a theme to Trump’s first 100 days it is the discovery that governing is different from and more challenging than campaigning. All new presidents have to learn this, but Trump’s lack of previous experience in office and the grandiosity of his promises to voters mean the bar of enlightenment is set higher for him than for any of his predecessors.