Donald Trump’s first 100 days: there is time to right ship
Posted on April 4, 2017
(Also published in The Hill)
"Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
Bluto didn’t have his history right in his iconic speech in the famous movie “Animal House” but his sentiment certainly has some resonance when talking about Donald Trump’s first hundred days.
It may be that the president’s rough start could signal a failing presidency, but rough starts are really nothing new for new administrations.
Ronald Reagan is usually credited with a having a great first hundred days. But in actuality, his White House was a mess, riven by bitter ideological rivalries and a hostile Democratic Congress. Getting shot by John Hinckley and his heroic response turned out to be a key turning point in his young presidency.
Bill Clinton’s first hundred days were even more disastrous. He couldn’t find an attorney general who didn’t have a “nanny gate” problem until he settled on Janet Reno, who didn’t have children. Shortly after she took office, the Branch Davidian crisis began, which ended up in the deaths of several small children. Clinton’s White House was in disarray from day one, put on its heels by several other scandals, including Travelgate, Whitewater and several so-called bimbo eruptions.
Things weren’t completely rosy for George W. Bush either. He had a professional staff, many of whom were veterans from his father’s administration. But there was a gnawing perception in the country and on the Hill that Bush wasn’t completely up to the job and that Dick Cheney, his vice president, was really the power behind the throne. It wasn’t until Bush climbed atop the rubble of the World Trade Towers and proclaimed that soon the world would hear America respond to the vicious attacks that it became clear he was the man in charge.
In other words, it’s not unusual for new administrations to start slowly and yet make a comeback in time for their reelection.
But you can also find plenty of examples where slow starts kill the chances of a president ever making a comeback.
Gerald Ford made a fatal error when he quickly pardoned Richard Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate. Many swing voters simply couldn’t forgive him or his predecessor.
Jimmy Carter alienated congressional Democrats, especially House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), with his persnickety, condescending style, and his inability to develop a working relationship with members of his own party would make stiffly his ability to move a legislative agenda.
George H.W. Bush could never escape the shadow of Ronald Reagan and focused most of his efforts on calming a world in turmoil in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His first hundred days were notably devoid of any effort to break new ground. He broke his lone domestic promise, to never raise taxes, alienating his conservative base and splitting his party.
What does this history mean for Donald Trump and his first hundred days?
Well, first a slow start doesn’t necessarily mean a bad finish. Most presidents don’t come in like gangbusters, a la Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Second, the biggest peril for any president is alienating your political allies. Jimmy Carter could never bond with congressional Democrats. George H.W. Bush split his party by agreeing to a tax increase. Gerald Ford could never make conservatives happy, and that inspired Reagan to mount a primary challenge.
Third, how a president handles an early crisis can define his presidency, but is not sufficient. Reagan and W. heroically faced down their enemies: Reagan an assassin’s bullet and Bush the 9/11 attacks. But Bush’s father did yeoman’s work in handling the end of the Cold War and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s army on the battlefield, but did nothing on the domestic front.
Finally, making the tough choices on the economy early on can pay dividends later. Reagan’s tax plan worked just in time for his reelection. Same for Clinton, whose explosive economic growth track record protected him from impeachment and to some extent, the same for W., whose economic track was good enough for reelection. But failure to move quickly to juice the economy can make you a one-term president. Just ask H.W., Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
It wasn’t over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. But if Trump doesn’t get his economic plan in place, it could be over for him.