100 Days: How’s Trump Doing?

On the executive side, he’s keeping his promises. On the legislative side, he doesn’t even seem interested in trying.

“No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.” Really? Let’s evaluate this boast from Donald Trump.

This Saturday, April 29th, will mark 100 days since Trump put his hand on the Bible and took the presidential oath of office on the Capital steps. In the days leading up to this milestone there will be a proliferation of media coverage focused on what he and his administration accomplished since that rainy, overcast day in January. Though there have been a fair number of successes, unfortunately for Trump and his team, the retrospectives will primarily look back at missed opportunities, self-induced wounds, and outright failures. In any case, past is not prologue, and if Trump is able to learn how to influence the governing process from the executive branch he still has the chance to score some real progress before next year’s mid-term elections.

Before examining Trump’s first three plus months as the nation’s chief executive, it’s important to understand why politicians, the media and the American people have put an emphasis on the early days of a modern presidency. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to the benchmark in a speech in 1933, it has been used to measure presidential progress. It stands to reason that a new president has the best chance to be effective early on in his tenure since he’s coming off a victory. As historian Anthony Badger wrote in his book, “FDR: The First 100 Days,” “The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony.”

Candidate Trump set the bar quite high for himself, issuing his Contract With the American Voter last October.

As president, he’s accomplished much of the executive side of the list. Trump supporters point especially to his successful Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, and the 17-year-low on U.S.-Mexico border crossings. There are also the numerous executive orders covering diverse topics from the suspension of the Syrian refugee program to directing the Treasury secretary to review the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law.

The Daily Signal has a list of regulations Trump has rolled back so far, from the coal industry to education to welfare requirements to gun restrictions. And he’s reportedly preparing a flurry of new executive orders covering things from the VA and oil exploration to health care, tax reform and more. If all goes according to plan, he will have signed more executive orders in his first 100 days than any other president — many of them undoing the power grabs of the previous administration.

But, thanks largely to GOP infighting, he’s utterly failed to accomplish anything with Congress, and that’s where the real meat of his agenda is stuck. In some cases, the blame lies mostly with Congress. Yet Trump hasn’t even introduced several of his priorities. No wonder he now downplays the 100 days mark: “It’s an artificial barrier. It’s not very meaningful.”

To be fair, Trump was elected as an agent of change and his candidacy was the equivalent of a political pyroclastic flow meant to rid Washington, DC, of the old order. And while Trump’s fiery and scorched earth rhetoric may have appealed to disaffected voters during the campaign, he soon discovered that governing is a vastly different proposition than winning the Electoral College. He experienced that dynamic first hand with his inability to find enough support within his own party to pass a health care bill in the House of Representatives, let alone the Senate. More importantly, Trump saw the limitations of his power and hopefully he realized that he couldn’t engender an adversarial relationship with the one institution that can make or break him.

Which leads to a very important question. What does President Trump need to do over the next few months to facilitate his agenda? First, he needs to take note of the congressional calendar, specifically the House’s. A cursory look reveals that there are roughly 44 working days until the August recess, and then only 47 more working days until the end of the year. That isn’t a lot of time, so Trump needs to work with Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on pushing legislation that can quickly pass both the House and the Senate.

Tax reform is an issue that appeals to many in the Republican caucus but it’s probably going to be a major piece (or pieces) of legislation and, if Trump is serious about getting a bill signed into law, he will need to spend a considerable amount of his political capital on it. The last time serious federal tax reform passed was in 1986 and it required herculean efforts from both the executive and legislative branches. In their seminal book about the 1986 tax reform process, “Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform,” authors Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Alan S. Murray identified multiple instances during the 18-month process where President Ronald Reagan and his cadre of experts worked with Democrats and Republicans on passing the bill. Tax reform in 2017 will require this same type of determination.

There is an axiom in Washington that presidents only have so much bandwidth to devote to critical issues during their time in the White House — it’s known as the 10/50 rule. It means that, while there are 50 different things on the president’s “to do” list, he can devote energy only to 10 major items. The items on the list change daily and are often driven by events, not by choice. This means that all presidents spend most of their time dealing with issues that aren’t personal to them and that’s why it’s critical they don’t waste time early on in their terms.

No president can achieve all of his campaign promises right away. So Trump must prioritize what items on his list can be accomplished right now by working with the Republican Congress. He has to build a foundation on one or two issues that will enable him to pursue the rest of his agenda later in his term. The good news is that as a man who has spent his life creating buildings around the world that’s one concept he will have no problem understanding. For now, we can be glad for his executive success, and continue to push for legislative wins to go with it.

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