This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on April 24, 2017
It is absolutely true that there is nothing special about a new president’s first 100 days. It is an arbitrary and artificial construct, a metric set up long ago that is now codified, like marathons being 26.2 miles. Just as Kim Kardashian is famous for being famous, the first 100 days is important because it is important. NPR senior editor and longtime political observer Ron Elving says that the first-100-day marker “is now with us permanently like a Hallmark holiday.”
In American politics, the first-100-day marker was set down by Franklin Roosevelt. It then took on greater resonance with John Kennedy’s line in his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days … nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” The Washington Post’s Kristine Phillips offered more first-100-day history, recounting that President Lyndon Johnson told his congressional liaison chief Larry O’Brien to “jerk out every damn little bill you can and get them down here by the 12th” and that President Nixon even named a “Hundred Days Group” to get him “off the hook on quantity of legislation being the first measure of success of the first hundred days,” as he put it.
Roosevelt signed 76 bills into law and swore in his entire Cabinet at once during his first 100. The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, cited one historian who rated nine of Roosevelt’s first-100-day pieces of legislation enacted as “major” while another said 15. President Obama signed 55 bills into law, including his economic-stimulus package. Last week, as he closed in on 100 days in office, President Trump had signed 28 bills, none that could even remotely be called major.
Obviously it’s a challenge for a new president to get much done when he faces a Congress controlled by the opposition party, as was the case with Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. If a president’s party holds just one chamber, it takes political dexterity to push through a White House agenda. Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans had a bare two-seat majority in the Senate, but Democrats narrowly held the House. Ronald Reagan had a Republican Senate but a Democratic House for his first six years in office. George W. Bush had a Republican House and a Senate split 50-50. But when a new president enjoys majorities in both chambers, a happy circumstance for Kennedy, Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Obama, and now Trump, it’s harder to justify a meager legislative record.
That said, it shouldn’t come as a shock that a president who has never worked in government before might get off to a slower and rougher start. Trump has an unusually large number of appointed positions that have yet to be filled, and a large proportion of aides who are in place either held much lower previous government positions or are political novices. Neither factor excuses a slow start but it does explain one.
The Trump team has drawn attention to its failures by setting unrealistic goals and timetables. The president would do well to follow the old adage that “it’s not about doing it fast but doing it right.” It would also be prudent to confer with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan before announcing grand initiatives, just to make sure the bills won’t be dead on arrival.
From the polling it’s clear that many Americans never liked Trump and will never like or agree with him. But an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 94 percent of those who voted for him approve of the job he is doing, and that 96 percent say they would cast their ballots for him again. As this column has noted, 30 states gave him pluralities in November, so the bull had an invitation to the china shop. Though Trump has learned a lot he didn’t know before, and his positions have evolved on many issues, he is approaching the job pretty much as he said he would.
But it will be a tall order to win reelection after receiving just 46.1 percent in November and then getting off to a stumbling start. Descriptions like “Keystone Kops” and “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” are flippant but not entirely wrong. To expand his support, Trump and his administration need to show the level of competence expected of a president. With his legislative belly flops and unprecedentedly low job approval ratings, a government shutdown would be highly damaging.
Presidents tend not to be humble people, and Trump is one of the least humble since the Founding. He would do well to turn off the cable news shows and seek advice from Republicans who have served in the White House and learned from their own mistakes. If Trump stays on his know-it-all path, his second 100 days may yield as little as his first.