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Why Is Trump Losing So Much?

After a headline-grabbing strike in Syria, let's not forget that the president has failed to advance most of his agenda.

Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, hours before launching missiles against the Syrian government in a sudden foreign policy shift, Donald Trump told reporters how great he was doing. According to the president, it's been "one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency," a curious statement on a couple grounds. First of all, it's been 11 weeks. Second of all, no it hasn't. Here's what's gone wrong for Trump during this "successful" stretch:

  • His "travel ban" barring refugee admissions and entry to the US from several Muslim-majority countries remains stalled in the courts, at least partially because of loose talk from Trump and his advisers about enacting a "Muslim ban."
  • The effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act hasn't even gotten out of the House of Representatives thanks to a terrible bill that was incompetently rolled out.
  • We've yet to see a single brick of Trump's famous border wall.
  • Trump's other big legislative priorities—tax reform and an infrastructure plan—have yet to even materialize as concrete proposals.
  • His proposed budget was full of drastic cuts, but no one thinks that it will become reality due to opposition in Congress.
  • There are more than 500 important positions in the federal government that have yet to be filled, the vast majority because Trump has failed to even name a nominee. (There is no deputy secretary of state, for instance.)
  • Trump has promised to make a bunch of splashy foreign policy moves: pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, renegotiate NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal, label China a currency manipulator, force US allies to contribute more to their own defense. But the only pledge he's really followed through on is killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the few issues he and Clinton agreed on during the campaign.
  • As for the Syria strike itself, it's not clear what the administration intends to achieve, let alone if it will be successful.

Despite everything that has gone awry Trump, he has accomplished some things. He nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a pick that was confirmed despite a filibuster from Senate Democrats. He is also assisting a Republican-dominated Congress in gutting regulations using a once-obscure tool called the Congressional Review Act. Trump's EPA doesn't seem too concerned about protecting the environment, raids targeting undocumented immigrants have ramped up, and the White House has thrown the State Department into chaos.

But those are all policies practically any Republican president would have pursued. What's striking so far is that the big-ticket agenda items Trump spent his campaign talking about—the things that got him this far—have fizzled. And everyone knows it. After stock markets surged in anticipation of Trump's pro-business policies coming into effect, corporate leaders are now warning that the economy could lag as it becomes apparent Trump won't deliver.  

These early struggles aren't surprising, said John Hudak, an expert in governance at the Brookings Institution. Though Trump talked big, many of his goals were always going to be incredibly difficult to realize. Repealing the Affordable Care Act, for instance, immediately ran up against a problem that has nothing to do with Trump: House Republicans are so divided that coming up with a compromise might be impossible.

"There's nothing the president could have done to make [conservative] Freedom Caucus members think this was good legislation their voters could support, nor could he have gotten moderates onboard with a bill that took health insurance away," explained Hudak, who blamed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan rather than Trump for failing to get House Republicans to fall in line.

"The president could have foreseen it and told Ryan he was doing a lousy job," Hudak said, but Trump doesn't have the power to change Republican hearts and minds about the bill.

(It's worth noting that passing the Affordable Care Act took over a year, Democrats had larger majorities than the Republicans have now, and many of them lost their seats afterward. Healthcare, as Trump now understands, is complicated.)

As for Trump's executive actions, some of them sound impressive, like one ordering the Pentagon to figure out how to defeat ISIS. But that directive, like many of Trump's moves, just directed a government agency to issue a report on something, which Hudak described as a "customary, and in many ways restrained," way of going about things. And as the fight over the travel ban demonstrates, any major action will result in a court challenge.

Presidents don't need to sign orders to change the way federal agencies operate, but they do need to appoint allies to top positions to get things done. As Hudak told me, understaffing departments as Trump has done doesn't just make it difficult to get work done, a president without his team in place "weakens himself."

Even if Trump wants to destroy the federal government's "administrative state"—a target of White House adviser Steve Bannon—he still needs to staff it. "If you want to dismantle an agency the best thing you could do is to set appointees who can set a new course," said Hudak. "Without aggressive management, agency employees will continue government operations as usual."

Weakening regulations and kneecapping departments like the EPA may be a top goal for some of the small-government zealots in the White House, but Trump promised voters much more than that. "We want to do a great infrastructure plan, and on that side I will say that we're going to have, I believe, tremendous Democrat support," he told the New York Times on Wednesday.

Hudak told me that any major infrastructure proposal could attract Democrats, but there are a lot of questions that would need to be hammered out. How much do you fund urban transportation? How much of the money is provided by government, and how much of it comes from public-private partnerships? More fundamentally: How is Trump going to work with a Senate minority leader he's called Chuck "Fake Tears" Schumer?

"It's difficult to be borderline hateful toward Dems one day… then expect to work closely with them the next," Hudak said.

Trump's election was a shock, but it didn't change the dynamics of Washington, DC. It still takes an enormous amount of effort, skill, and luck to make major changes, and it doesn't help that Trump's team is very inexperienced when it comes to the legislative process.

"Right now, the House of Representatives has embarrassingly failed leadership," said Hudak. To get past that, he said, Trump could start relying more on the Senate, or install more veteran hands at the White House. Whatever he does, "he has to be more serious about legislative politics," Hudak said.

The kicker? The administration needs to get its act in order before 2018 rolls around—the president's party tends to lose House seats in the midterms, especially when the president is as unpopular as Trump. "Every seat that Ryan loses makes the job of governing harder," Hudak said. "If he loses ten or 15 seats, his job becomes impossible."

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.