President Donald Trump's first 100 days have been a fucking mess. The White House has tried to sell (via error-laden lists) Trump's prolific use of executive actions as proof of profound productivity, and Trump has tried to undermine the 100-day yardstick he himself highlighted on the campaign trail. But there's no denying that Trump hasn't delivered on many of his firm promises to voters so far: Aside from putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and cracking down on undocumented immigrants, most of his actions have proven to be more showmanship than substance. Trump's wild accusations and erratic behavior may have already damaged the institution of the American presidency. And as I write this, it seems he'll barely avoid a government shutdown (by letting Congress extend negotiations for another week) that there was no need to fly this close to on his first miniscule funding battle. The list of Trump's failures is so long—we haven't even scratched the surface here—that presidential historian Jonathan Alter recently told NBC News "this is the worst, least successful, first 100 days since it became a concept in 1933."
But other presidents, notably Bill Clinton, have had disastrous first 100 days and recovered. Trump's advisers seem confident they're coming to grips with the slow pace of the legislative process, and his supporters still back him. It's possible his next 100 days will be better than this stretch, at least when it comes to his legislative agenda. Given where he is on his apparently steep learning curve at day 99, though, that seems unlikely.
Over the past few days, a media narrative has emerged that Trump has come to grips with the fact that a president is not a CEO or a reality TV show host who can clap his hands and get things done. Recognizing the complexities of Congress and his initial failures, this interpretation goes, Trump has started to develop a subtler mode of operating. Case in point, soon after the implosion of the Republican Affordable Care Act replacement bill in the House last month, Trump reportedly quietly revived it, allowing Vice President Mike Pence to take lead on a softer and more open-ended approach. The result was a negotiated compromise bill with buy-in from conservative Republicans and at least one moderate.
The one-page sketch of a tax reform plan Trump released this Wednesday also read to some as a sign of growth. It was the White House taking point on a priority, but it also offered legislators basic principles to build upon rather than trying to stuff a fully-formed bill down legislators' throats, as in the case of the initial ACA replacement bill.
"It is a step in the right direction," said William Antholis, director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "But it's only one step."
The Trump-backed revived healthcare bill failed to secure enough votes to move ahead in the House this week. Antholis notes that the administration could possibly eventually pass this bill through backroom wheeling and dealing, but sees no clear path for it to proceed as is. And Trump's tax proposal has already spooked conservative Republicans who don't know how it would be paid for. "Everyone who's looked at his tax reform proposal says it's dead on arrival," Antholis said.
Antholis suspects that the Trump administration still doesn't have a great deal of legislative know-how on staff. Villanova congressional expert John Johannes added that while Trump seems more capable of wining and dining congressmen than former President Barack Obama, there is still "no strategy for the big picture."
Trump also hasn't abandoned the reliance on public threats, even those these have failed to work for him to date. When he lambasted conservative Republicans after his first healthcare failure, they ignored him. More recently, he hinted that he'd stop making subsidy payments to keep insurers in Affordable Care Act markets if Democrats didn't fund his border wall as part of the 2017 budget—then backed off.
Trump doesn't need to shift fully to soft touches, noted Johannes, but "clever presidents know when to push, when to beg, when to cajole, when to threaten… Trump is a long way from that skill level."
While his latest legislative push has seemingly had more time and breathing room built into it, Republicans reportedly still felt like he was rushing on both healthcare and the release of his tax plan to score points by day 100. And Johannes believes that while some flexibility is good, Trump still seems to care too little about policy details. "He seems too focused on getting something done," said Johannes, "rather than getting it right."
It doesn't help, the experts I spoke to agree, that Trump is so unpredictable; to make deals with Congress, legislators have to be able to trust you. Nor does it help that his administration has yet to fill, or even nominate candidates for, more than 500 key administrative jobs, many of which deal with shepherding policy priorities along. "There is absolutely no evidence that Trump even cares about filling those" positions, said Johannes.
"I have not seen anything that would indicate [Trump] has changed his modus operandi as it relates to legislation," said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former longtime Senate staffer. "He is still learning that it's not quite that easy to take on major policy changes and [have it so that you] snap your fingers and it happens."
Hoagland believes that to actually move forward on any of his key legislative promises, Trump is going to have to learn "that compromise is not a four-letter word [but] a necessary ingredient for a democratic process." He'll have to temper his own positions into a middle ground between whatever coalitions of willing Democrats and Republicans he can put together. Hoagland has heard from people who've worked with Trump that he can be a good listener behind closed doors. However, some observers worry that Trump's initial failures and hostility towards Democrats have poisoned the wells for this kind of pragmatism. "To be brutally frank," admitted Hoagland, Trump "is going to have to invite the Democratic leadership to Camp David—I would hope not to Mar-a-Lago. He's going to have to find some way of reaching out."
Even if he remains as he is—still bellicose, inexperienced, and prone to chaos—Antholis suspects Trump can still score a few legislative agenda wins over the next 100 days, or by year's end. "If you forced me to bet," he said, "it would be the repatriation of foreign earnings for companies. You might also get some sort of marginal corporate tax cut [or] a few other tax changes. For each of those, it's 50-50. It's a coin toss… But those things could happen."
That may be offset by the fact that team Trump is running out of other low-hanging fruits. According to Wake Forest University regulatory expert Sidney Shapiro, Republicans can slash a few more regulations via the Congressional Review Act, which Trump and Congress have used to eliminate several Obama-era rules. But the CRA only applies to rules enacted late in Obama's second term and most of the GOP's top target regulations have, he said, likely already been axed. Shapiro notes that Trump and company will find it a grueling process to actually change rules moving forward, and almost impossible to fully rescind them in most cases.
Though it's only spring, Trump actually doesn't have much time to tackle healthcare and taxes. "Moving not just one but two major pieces of legislation not just through the House, but through the Senate, through the requisite committees, then reconciling what's different is just hard to do that fast," said Antholis. And as the midterm campaign season approaches, some members of Congress will worry about taking risky votes, especially in the service of a president whose approval rating is below 50 percent.
All in all, Trump will be fairly lucky if his next 100 days aren't just as bad as his first. Or as Antholis put it, "as different as these two characters are… he really runs the risk of having a Carter-like presidency."
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