Saturday, April 29, 2017

100 Days

The media's preoccupation with any new president's "First 100 Days" is, in one sense, simply silly. But in another sense it can be quite suggestive. It is silly in that it artificially takes a unique historical moment - the busy, crisis-driven, first 100 days of FDR's first Administration that began in March 1933 as a kind of norm against which we measure very different presidents taking office under very different political and social circumstances.  That said, however, and always acknowledging the artificiality of the number 100, there is something to be said for evaluating how a president does in his first few months in office. Maybe, it should be 200-300 days instead of 100 - in other words, spanning the period from Inauguration Day to Congress's late summer recess or the end of the fiscal year or even the end of the congressional session. That might be a fairer measure, perhaps. But clearly what a contemporary president can accomplish - or fails to accomplish - in his "honeymoon" period (if he is lucky enough to have a "honeymoon") may indicate something about his long-term effectiveness as a political leader and so a harbinger of what to expect from the rest of his term. (On the other hand, some presidents, who had a terrible "First 100 Days" did better over time - e.g., Bill Clinton.)

Back when I was studying political science in the 1960s and 1970s, it was then theorized that the third year of a president's first term could potentially be his most productive. (If my memory serves me right, that view was associated with the famous and influential 1950s presidential scholar Richard Neustadt.) But, of course, that was back when Washington still followed now lost traditional norms, not to mention a more traditional political timetable. That was back when governance was still Washington's main business, before the permanent campaign replaced most serious attempts at governing, before New Gingrich and his spiritual heirs fatally corrupted our politics, before talk radio, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, etc. Now presidents have much shorter windows in which to accomplish anything - especially if the mid-term election goes against them. Hence the greater pressure to make the best possible use of any "honeymoon."

President Trump may fairly argue that he hasn't really had much of a "honeymoon" from either the opposition party or the press (which he seems to consider an opposition party)..Obviously his own hostile-takeover style and especially his war with the press have certainly contributed directly to his lack of a "honeymoon." On the other hand, he did come into office with some presumptively useful advantages (e.g., Republican control of both houses of Congress), despite which he has failed to get any legislation passed. (The "100 Days" idea originated, after all, in FDR's monumentally successful first congressional session in the spring of 1933.)

To be fair, Trump can claim a few non-legislative wins in his first 100 days. Perhaps most lastingly, he has apparently succeeded in tilting the Supreme Court's balance rightward for the next several decades. How much he really cares about the Court may be open to question, but certainly many of his supporters do. And, in foreign policy at least, he seems to be learning on the job and has surrounded himself with some clearly competent people (and gotten rid of his most problematic foreign-policy person). On Syria, he certainly seems no closer to a serious strategy than his predecessor, but at least deserves some credit for finally enforcing the Obama "red line" - something Obama himself famously failed to do! In the long run, how he handles North Korea may well turn out to be the more meaningful test case. It has already resulted in a more mature approach to China than his campaign would have led us to expect.

All that having been said, his domestic legislative accomplishments thus far are modest at most. While that may be good for the country, it is bad for his Administration's 100-Days scorecard! Some of that may be in part due to his personal unpreparedness, not really knowing how a president works with Congress, and the general unpreparedness of so much of his White House staff. But it also reflects the pre-existing divisions within the Republican party - and the fact that Trump isn't a real Republican and didn't campaign as one, that the conservative movement goals that still seem to motivate many congressmen don't matter much to him, while much of what he campaigned on would be anathema to many of them. At a juncture in history when the Republican congressional majority remains allergic to the responsibilities of governance, the weakness of White House legislative leadership obviously has had a significant impact. 

The situation is further complicated by the President's apparent willingness - on health care and on tax policy, for example - largely to abandon his populist constituency and embrace more Paul-Ryan-style policies aimed at further enriching the richest. Where Trump will finally end up remains to be seen - another argument for looking beyond the first 100 days. 

President Trump's core supporters still seem loyal to him. Nowadays, as we know, partisan loyalty tend to override everything else, including facts and ideology. But his continued strong support among his core supporters may also reflect more commonsense on the part of some of them than on the part of the media - a recognition that it is hard to get everything right - right away. And it may also be an act of faith on the part of a constituency that at present has nowhere else to go. How different progressive politics would be if those on the left showed comparable commonsense when judging their leaders!

It's just the first 100 days! There are still another 1360 days ahead!

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