U.S. President Donald Trump has marked his first 100 days in office. Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed dozens of bills in a whirlwind period, 100 days has served as a marker for presidential achievement. For Trump, that period has been “one of the most successful ever”; for most observers, however, it has been an abject lesson in the reality of governing. Whatever the verdict, Trump has transformed the presidency of the United States — and it has changed him.
FDR passed 76 bills in his first 100 days, 15 of them considered to be “major legislation.” Trump has passed 29 bills — 11 of which overturn Obama-era regulations, such as rules about the internet and social security, and four others are ceremonial and rename memorials and veterans health care facilities — and 30 executive orders, which mainly authorize studies and lay a foundation for future action.
The contrast is even stronger given Trump’s pledge to hit the ground running. His campaign produced a contract with 28 things he would do within his first 100 days; none of the 10 pieces of legislation that he promised has been passed, although he did sign some of the executive orders (and several were scaled back or canceled). He put his nominee on the Supreme Court bench, a signal achievement, but few presidents have even had that opportunity.
Trump has dismissed the 100-day standard as meaningless while in the very next breath touting his accomplishments. This contradictory behavior is typical of his administration and may be the most important element of his presidency to date. It is perhaps most evident in his foreign policy, the facet of his government most relevant to foreign audiences.
His campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again” was repeated in an inaugural address that stressed his intention to put America first. He spoke of reassessing the role of alliances in U.S. foreign policy, suggesting that allies and partners would have to contribute more to their defense. He derided and dismissed the trade deals, especially the multilateral agreements, that have been a cornerstone of U.S. economic policy for the last half century. And one of his first official acts was withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, upon which the governments of Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries invested so much time and hope.
In many other respects, the revolutionary rhetoric has not been matched by action. After dismissing NATO as obsolete, Trump now recognizes its importance. His secretaries of state and defense have made several trips to Northeast Asia to reassure Japan and South Korea of the enduring U.S. commitment to their defense. After saying his government would not intervene in distant conflicts, he attacked Syria after accusing the Assad government of using chemical weapons against civilians. He did not, as he pledged during the campaign, label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his administration and has instead forged “a very good relationship” with President Xi Jinping and the two governments are ostensibly working together to deal with North Korea. Similarly, his pledge to create a new relationship with Russia has been stymied by Moscow’s belligerence and support for the murderous government in Syria.
The head-spinning gyrations reflect Trump’s personality and idiosyncrasies, his lack of experience in government, his ignorance about many subjects he has been forced to confront, and the realization that being president is much harder than he expected. They have been abetted by the absence of presidential appointees throughout the government and a managerial style that promotes competition among staff.
Despite the reversals, Trump insists he is in charge, that there have been no changes and all goes according to plan. On one level he is right: Trump is contemptuous of many of the norms and protocols of the presidency, and charts his own course and sets his own standards. His brash, unfiltered persona continues to find expression in countless media interviews and tweets, providing a remarkably transparent window on his presidency. In many instances, the gap between his reality and that of outside observers is striking, and it is impossible to tell if course changes reflect negotiating tactics (as he would insist) or the absence of guiding principles.
The conclusion tends to rest on the viewer’s original assessment of Trump. Supporters are undaunted by his reversals and credit him for both intent and results. Detractors are not so charitable. This divide may be the most important characteristic of Trump’s first 100 days. Indisputable is that Trump has the lowest approval rating of any new president: 43 percent in contrast to 65 percent of his predecessor Barack Obama, 62 percent for George W. Bush and 55 percent for Bill Clinton. The failure to reach out to those who did not support him and win them over will undermine any real hope of future success for Trump. He must start working on this now.