WHAT DO U.S. President Donald Trump’s first 100 days tell us about how his administration will evolve?
The notion that the accomplishments of the first 100 days of a new American president’s term is a standard of measurement is a legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In his first 100 days in office in 1933, Roosevelt unleashed a whirlwind of activity. It brought 15 major pieces of legislation enacted by Congress and included, in Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the beginning of presidents directly addressing the electorate.
His record of activity, however, is undeniable. It hasn’t been met or surpassed by any president since.
The first 100 days of a president’s term represent just three per cent of the time that they could hold office, if elected for two four-year terms. What a president accomplishes in their first 100 days isn’t necessarily indicative of what they’ll accomplish in office or whether they’ll be successful. It does, however, offer some insights into how they’ll govern.
So what about Trump?
On the foreign policy side, Trump has been far more willing to act decisively in the use of military force in Syria and Afghanistan, and has moved resolutely to counter North Korea’s plans to test intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
More significantly, he has loosened the rules of engagement that govern military operations in the field and he has returned more local authority to commanders to craft military responses. This is a welcome change from the indecisiveness and the tendency to orchestrate military operations from the White House that characterized the administration of Barack Obama.
The détente with Russia never materialized; indeed, relations with Moscow have turned increasingly frosty.
On foreign policy, Trump has acted aggressively. On domestic policy, the record is mixed. But he has moved with force to reverse environmental protections
The America First doctrine – more campaign slogan than coherent policy – led candidate Trump to question the utility of organizations like NATO and to charges that America’s allies were getting a free ride. But, for the most part, that doctrine has been quietly shelved. Notwithstanding Trump’s comments, as a candidate and as president, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly signalled that Washington would remain committed to NATO and its bilateral defence agreements.
Since being appointed national security adviser, following the resignation of Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster has steadily purged the White House national security staff of its more ideological members. Gone are K.T. McFarland, Flynn’s immediate deputy and former Breitbart national security editor, and Steve Bannon confidant Sebastian Gorka. Many of the administrative changes initiated by Flynn on the national security council have been reversed. Bannon has been dropped from the principals committee of the council.
The national security staff at the White House increasingly looks like that of the past Republican administrations that Trump criticized. That also means there’s a growing divide between Trump’s populist rhetoric on foreign and defence policy, and the people tasked with making his administration’s security policy.
On the domestic policy side, the record is mixed.
Trump was successful in securing Senate approval of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. His effort to impose restrictions on immigration from certain predominantly-Muslim countries was stymied twice by the courts. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was an embarrassing fiasco. Trump did approve, via executive order, the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines. And he has moved aggressively with executive orders to reverse various actions implemented in the last six months of the Obama administration.
Finally, Trump has moved especially aggressively to reverse various Obama initiatives designed to combat climate change. These include restrictions on oil drilling on federal lands, especially in the Arctic, tough regulations on auto emissions and coal-fired power plants, and rejection of the Paris accords on climate change.
What’s unusual is the number of presidentially-appointed government positions still vacant. Only 10 to 15 per cent of the 4,000 executive branch positions subject to presidential appointment have been filled.
Democrats have been quick to point to Trump’s record low approval rating in the polls for a new president. A steady stream of anti-Trump protests, from the Women’s March to the March for Science, and a newly-galvanized political base have the Democrat Party confidently predicting major gains in the 2018 mid-term elections.
This may turn out to be true but it’s premature. Recent polling shows that 94 per cent of the voters who elected Trump would vote for him again. The practice of polling all adults rather than likely voters and the growing unwillingness of many Americans to answer polls also suggest Trump’s popularity is understated. Instead of the abysmally low 40 per cent approval rating, Trump’s approval among likely voters is probably in the 48 to 49 per cent range. That isn’t bad on the heels of a bitter election that left the electorate sharply divided.
Moreover, there’s little evidence that the Democrats are successfully wooing back the blue-collar workers or ethnic swing voters who gave Trump his victory. Nor is it clear that the new Democrat voters the party is galvanizing will make a difference in the swing districts that they need to regain control of the House.
In the recent special election in Georgia, Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff only polled one per cent better than Hillary Clinton did in November, 48 to 47 per cent. Ossoff raised more than $8.3 million, 75 per cent of it from out of state. That was more money than all the other 11 candidates raised and 10 times the amount that previous Democrat candidates in the district spent. Ossoff may still win the runoff election against Republican Karen Handel, but so far there’s little evidence of a groundswell of support for the Democrats.
The fact is, if the presidential election were held today, Trump would still beat Clinton.
The first 100 days of the Trump administration show two things:
- Trump is better at campaigning for the presidency than being president. That’s hardly new. Much the same could be said of Obama and his predecessors.
- Translating the America First slogan into a coherent policy of economic and political nationalism will be difficult. Presidents don’t have as much power as they or the electorate generally believe. The Republican Congress is lukewarm to populist-driven economic nationalism. Existing multilateral trade agreements have their own constituencies, some of which are important to the Republican base.
The United States has a broad array of ties – economic, political, military and diplomatic – with virtually every country in the world. That forces compromise whether the White House wants it or not. It’s difficult, for example, to force a confrontation with China over trade when Washington also wants China to rein in North Korea.
The challenge the Trump administration faces is to figure out how to implement enough of its America First agenda – or create the impression it’s doing so – to retain its political base without damaging long-term political and economic relationships the U.S. needs.
It’s not easy but it’s not impossible. That’s why the Trump administration will continue to talk tough, even though in the end the U.S. won’t withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and building the U.S.-Mexican border wall won’t happen.
Trump will continue to criticize key U.S. allies for not doing their part, for freeloading on American security and owing the U.S. billions of dollars for that security. But the U.S. won’t withdraw from NATO or any of its bilateral security agreements.
Every first-term president wants a second term. Trump is no different. While it’s possible that Republican challengers to Trump may emerge in 2020, it’s highly unlikely that such a challenge would come from a Republican populist. No Republican is likely to out-Trump the Donald.
Conversely, it’s very likely that the Democratic challenge to Trump in 2020 will come from a populist like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. That means that a key constituency of Trump’s base will be in contention. So the Trump administration will continue to talk about America First even as it quietly moves away from some of its more radical proposals, like withdrawal from trade agreements and imposing punishing tariffs.
Without its America First rhetoric, this administration will seem little different from the establishment Republican administrations Trump denounced during the campaign. Focusing too heavily on an America First strategy, however, will likely produce a political impasse.
That’s why the Trump White House will talk the talk but hesitate to walk the walk. To some, a president who says one thing but does another leads to policy incoherence. That certainly was much in evidence in the first 100 days.
Then again, presidents rarely do what they say. Trump will prove no different.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and commentator on world politics.
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