A New Direction and Its Limits: The First 100 Days of a Trump Administration

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Written by Jonathan Gregory

The historic election of Donald Trump as President of the United States represents a new direction in American politics. His surprise upset of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed that the anti-Washington and anti-establishment mood of the country may have reached new heights as it elected a candidate who is a political outsider with no government or military experience. Much of the country believes that Washington is not working or working for them, and that sentiment was reflected in voters expressing their frustration and desire for change. Trump’s election is part of a broader global trend for change in reaction to the inherently unsettling aspects of globalization.

President Trump enters the White House with the potential to change the current framework of governing in Washington in ways few Presidents have had the chance to do. However, he is ultimately limited by the same factors that limit all Presidents. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency will likely provide some clues about the type of President he will be and how he will operate.

Mr. Trump’s Contract with the American Voter is a mix of traditional and unconventional policy ideas and it will be interesting to follow. However, what may be more useful is to consider broader questions: What will happen in a Trump Administration in the first 100 days, how will it happen and what does it predict about a Trump Presidency?

It is clear that Republican priorities will replace Democratic priorities, but one unknown question is how far President Trump will go, not only to change the policy direction of the United States, but to deliver the type of new and unconventional ideas he has promised to change the way Washington works.

The Trump Agenda and the First 100 Days

The first 100 days agenda of a presidency is generally intended to set a tone, change direction, achieve immediate success and establish a basis for future governing. While President Franklin Roosevelt’s flurry of government action during the great depression established the 100 day measure, the FDR bar of success is almost impossible to match. Nonetheless, it is a time when much is possible and when much can be done.

President Trump’s 100 day agenda is ambitious and far-reaching with different degrees of potential success.   Some items, like tax reform, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, and an immigration overhaul, will take many months to accomplish because there is strong opposition and they are complicated issues. Simply advancing action on each would be a victory. Other issues, such as military spending, are either linked to the budget process or are dead on arrival in the Congress, as is the case with Washington anti-corruption and term limit proposals. However, there is a set of issues including infrastructure investment, school choice, child care and eldercare and community safety that could serve as low-hanging fruit, particularly as there may be some Democratic support to advance these issues.

For the most part, the 100 day agenda relates to Congress and does not include unilateral executive actions, which Presidents can take immediately. President Trump will have more sweeping power to enact executive, regulatory, treaty and military changes as long as they don’t require congressional approval, conflict with existing law or cost additional money. And even if his actions do violate these principles, he may be able to pursue them anyway, as President Obama has, in the absence of congressional or judicial resistance.

Real Change and Real Power

President Trump’s electoral power will be magnified by several things. The first is the enhanced executive authority of the President, ironically expanded under President Obama and first accelerated by President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The imperial Presidency is alive and well with the courts and Congress acting as seemingly periodic checks on power. A second factor is that oversight by a Congress of the same party as the President is almost always less robust. A third factor is Trump’s profile – a unique political independence and lack of adherence to party ideology or Washington tradition.

President Trump is different from most Presidents in that he enjoys a political power base independent of the Republican and Democratic parties, which could give him a flexibility and leverage rarely seen in a modern Presidency. In addition to this base of power, he has the support of the Republican establishment and many independents, coherent congressional majorities in both chambers of Congress, a neutral Supreme Court, and a Republican majority of governors and state legislatures. It is a level of Republican Presidential power not seen since 1980, aided by a bold, charismatic leader with a defined agenda and license for change.

President Trump won the 2016 election in many ways because he was in touch with a part of the electorate and national sentiment that few other candidates understood, could articulate or could mobilize. If he is able to maintain this connection during his Presidency, it could be a powerful weapon in using the “bully pulpit” to enact policies and promote change in Washington.

The Democratic Party’s unexpected defeat, not only in the Presidential elections, but also in falling far short of its expected wins in Congress, puts the party in a temporary state of disarray, as is the case with losing parties in most elections. It is a party with an aging leadership that lacks a singular leader at the top, and thus, President Trump will have the upper hand in partisan and bipartisan agreements for some time.

Real Constraints

President Trump faces some very real constraints that may undermine his ability to govern and to advance his 100 day agenda. There are natural political and institutional conflicts between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government which could flare up at any time and constrain Trump’s ability to act. Legal, budgetary and political constraints haven’t changed with Trump’s election. The federal budget, infrastructure, tax reform and immigration are all issues where such constraints play a role.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution gives the President relatively few formal powers in comparison to Congress, and unlike the election process, there are many more checks and balances in the process, particularly if you include the independence of the courts, states and the media. Similarly, bipartisan opposition is not unique to Presidents Obama or Bush and could potentially affect the ability of President Trump to act as may be the case emerging with cyber security and Russia. CEOs aren’t often contradicted, resisted or overruled by their own company, but the U.S. government is designed to operate on that basis.

From the perspective of public opinion and informal powers, the lack of a popular vote majority and relatively narrow electoral victory will be a constraining factor in governing. Trump’s election win is closer than it may appear as he won four key states (Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan) by less than 1.5% each. Combined with a popular vote deficit of nearly 3 million votes and one of the most narrow electoral victories in the modern era, this suggests is that a lot of people didn’t like or agree with Trump.

It is too early to tell if President Trump’s status as a newcomer to Washington will impact his ability to effectively fill the 4,000-6,000 federal positions typically required of a new Administration, 1,000 of which are essential. This hiring process is a challenge for any Administration and often can slow policy change or executive action as offices are understaffed or lacking direction, as career bureaucrats manage the day-to-day operations of government. The White House staff is another area where governing can be undermined if roles aren’t filled or clarified and processes aren’t in place, as some have suggested is the case with President Trump’s team.

Others have said Mr. Trump could be his own worst enemy as his personal and public attacks via traditional and social media, inconsistent policy positions, lack of adherence to facts or tendency to get involved or sidetracked in individual issues could limit his effectiveness. He must be careful not to inadvertently overreach and overplay his hand with the American public or accidentally provoke his own party by exposing divisions over issues like trade.

Discipline, consistency and time management are key characteristics of all successful Presidents and a lack of any can quickly cause a President to lose public support and focus and get bogged down. President Bill Clinton’s first 100 days included several bad episodes such as his efforts to promote an economic stimulus bill and advance his gays in the military policy. The particular risk for President Trump is that he could shorten his Presidential honeymoon period if a policy fails, he fails to read the mood of the country or Washington becomes gridlocked over an issue, as it may constrain his ability to act in Congress.

The Road Ahead

In the end, the question remains: What will Trump do in the First 100 days and who will he be? Will he be a visionary who changes Washington and has a lasting legacy like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan? Will he start strong and weaken like George H.W. Bush or will he start slowly and finish strong like Bill Clinton? Or will he succumb to circumstances like Jimmy Carter?

The key variable in the first 100 days of a Donald Trump presidency will be to watch what he does, not what he says. He has already shown that he will offer contradictory statements or take multiple positions only to settle on a final solution which is different, but in line with his goals. One thing to watch is if he measures success beyond the results of public opinion and personal ego and can objectively measure success in other ways. We will get a sense in the first 100 days of how Mr. Trump learns on the job and faces presidential adversity. Every new President also faces a crisis moment when organization, experience and leadership are on display (or not on display) and this may or may not happen in the first 100 days. The FDR’s great depression agenda is the positive example and President John F. Kennedy’s aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba is the negative.

We will also get an early sense if he will make any inroads into changing the way Washington operates to a more business oriented framework devoid of the gridlocked, special interest dominated, wasteful, corrupt and ineffective practices he portrays. How adept he, his team and his cabinet leaders are in fully understanding Washington and assuming the reins of power during the first 100 days will determine how effective he will be in the longer term.

It will be instructive to see if Mr. Trump pursues a third way in his first 100 days, either by putting together bipartisan coalitions around common issues or shedding Republican ideologies to cut deals with Democrats. This return to Presidential leadership based on coalitions and common interest would be a fundamental change to the partisan and almost parliamentary style of single party support in Congress.

Donald Trump is a disruptive figure in a time of disruption as the world is unsettled and changing. He seeks to challenge the governing system and change political assumptions, thinking and people. How much he succeeds in doing these things to improve the lives and opportunities of Americans will be the measure of his success.

President Obama, like every President brought change, but it is fair to say he was not transformative in changing how Washington works or dramatically changing the direction of the country. Whether Donald Trump will be a truly transformational figure is to be determined, but if he does, it will be despite a number of factors stacked against him. The first 100 days agenda will offer some early clues.

About the author: Jonathan Gregory is a government affairs consultant in Washington, D.C.