Although setbacks outweigh achievements in Trump’s first 100 days, future progress is still possible. Correcting course through lessons-learned is key. In foreign policy, some certainty slowly emerges as Mattis and McMaster assume larger roles.
In historic retrospect, the first 100 days of the presidency of Donald Trump is a narrative of an administration struggling to transfer from the rhetoric of the campaign to the reality of power, that is, from electioneering to governing.
Despite strong ambitions and extraordinary energy, Trump is still a political novice with no experience to elected office. Transitioning from businessman-in-chief to commander-in-chief was never going to be an easy task. To a considerable extent, Trump has made the task more difficult for himself during his first 100 days in power. To complicate matters more, there are obviously many who wish to see him fail.
The 100-Day deadline dates back to the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the depths of the Great Depression, the American people needed hope, a positive future outlook and a sense of constructive momentum. However, today the 100-Day deadline is largely symbolic and designed mostly for media and public consumption. Some may even dismiss it as illusory. For better or worse, the 100-Day Deadline has become a part of the American political debate and inevitably dominates headlines and public discussion.
This begs the question; what could realistically be expected in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency? It would be misleading to speak of failures and successes within the context of a four year presidency. Even more so, when the new chief executive is a non-politician and beginner in public administration, a first in U.S. history. Hence, it would be more accurate to speak of setbacks and achievements during Trump’s first 100-Days in power.
Overall, Trump’s setbacks outweigh his achievements in terms of what he claimed would be done as opposed to what materialized in his first 100 days as president. Trump is somewhat of a victim of his own rhetoric. He established high expectations and encountered blowback when not realized. Most of his setbacks were largely avoidable and self-inflicted due in part to inexperience, incompetence and also hubris, particularly on healthcare and immigration. He needs to narrow the gap between intent and the ability to deliver.
On immigration, Trump went too far, too fast. So far this has resulted in two judicial rulings halting his agenda. On healthcare, what took Obama over a year to negotiate is impossible to undo in less than a month. Quick off-the-mark, brash decision-making simply will not work in Washington. A serious re-think in approach is required. Trump needs to rely on more effective personnel with the necessary experience, understanding and appreciation of how the political and legislative process works.
Furthermore, Trump should calibrate his rhetoric and curb public expectations. Overreach on both could eventually lead to serious damage and potentially irreversible loss of credibility at home and abroad, thus dangerously tarnishing American legitimacy in an increasingly unstable world which risks unpredictable, and often catastrophic, consequences.
At this early stage in his presidency, Trump is better off pursuing greater outreach and less confrontation. Threat tactics may often work in the world of big city real estate. However, it is unikely to yield any dividends in Washington, particularly with members of his own party who may beg to differ on issues such as healthcare. In Washington politics, the art of the deal more often lies more in consensus-building and less in intimidation.
Finally, Trump must accelerate the process of political appointments to critical positions to ensure more effective government action. Over 500 positions need to be filled, including judgeships and ambassadorships. As of early April, less than 50 candidates had been either nominated or approved. Furthermore, on appointments greater emphasis must be placed on meritocracy and less on loyalty.
Trump’s unpredictability and brazenness has most certainly upended the Washington establishment across the political spectrum. His most significant, and historic, achievement remains the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. For the Republican base, it restored the Court’s conservative majority a year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With others justices advancing in age, and possibly retiring during the current presidential term, Trump may have a shot at other nominations. He could potentially shape the Supreme Court for another generation or more, or at least rejuvenate the current conservative majority.
To his credit, Trump kept his word on rejecting the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement immediately after his inauguration. He also kept his promise of overturning several Obama-era executive orders. Approving the Keystone Pipeline, carrying energy from Canada to the U.S., stood out most by far. However, it is also important not to underestimate the importance of several other Obama-executive order reversals which received scant media attention.
Although Trump’s international trade orientation is generally clear, he began as a blank slate on the foreign policy front with a penchant for risky policy on-the-fly. Currently, his foreign policy is still in the making and slowly evolving, but an element of certainty and continuity is gradually emerging as Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster assume greater roles and increased responsibilities. This has become increasingly evident with America’s traditional NATO allies and Japan. During the campaign, he considered NATO “obsolete” and now completely reversed position.
There were two critical turning points in foreign policy during Trump’s first 100 days. First, was the appointment of McMaster as National Security Advsor and the dismissal of Michael Flynn, a political hand-grenade whose legal travails could soon result in prosecution. Together with retired general and Secretary of Defense Mattis , McMaster is seizing the reins of national security and providing the necessary professionalism required to guide America in an increasingly unstable world. Despite his enormous global experience in the energy sector, Rex Tillerson is still trying to establish a firm presence as Secretary of State. Thus far the key institutions of U.S. national security and defense under Trump gradually appear to be developing a constructive working relationship, as opposed to inter-agency rivalry of previous administrations. Should this materialize increasingly over time, it would mark a considerable achievement for the Trump administration.
The second important turning point in U.S. foreign policy under Trump was the bombing of Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in early April. It may have marked the moment when Trump truly woke up to the significance and reality of U.S. military power in the world. Secondly, it may have also marked the moment when Trump began to realize the value of traditional allies during critical times. They were quick to express support for Trump’s use of armed force in Syria.
The bombing of Syria was also Trump’s attempt to convey to the world that there is “a new sheriff in town” and his willingness to use armed force whenever deemed necessary. He has already given U.S. military leaders more flexibility on the use of force. President Obama set the redlines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Trump ensured they would be enforced.
Critics of Trump who claim there must be a clear strategy underpinning such actions, and the use of armed force, must wake up to the reality that a Trump doctrine is unlikely to emerge for some time. The bottom line is that it remains a work in progress and will unfold gradually as current and future challenges, such as North Korea, are confronted.
At the end of Trump’s first 100 days in power, a key question is whether he has learned the hard lessons in order to make the necessary progress during his four year term. His career is a chronology of ups and downs. Despite his numerous setbacks, he has managed to bounce back. It is a narrative that appeals to ordinary Americans and which forms a large part of Trump’s public appeal. Although politics is a different game from real estate, his resolve and determination to succeed in this new arena must not be underestimated.
Ultimately, Trump is a businessman with a powerful ego who craves for great results. In order to achieve them and succeed as president, he must pursue greater consensus-building at home and more constructive engagement abroad.