Much has been written about the ahistorical nature of Donald Trump, the first U.S. president with no experience in government or the military. After his first one hundred days, history is reasserting itself.
By James Kitfield
Much has been written about the ahistorical nature of Donald Trump, the first person ever elected president of the United States without ever serving in government or the military. Indeed, to anchor some of Trump’s protectionist and anti-establishment positions in a historical context, political scientists and historians have reached back all the way to the mercantilism of eighteenth-century Europe, and the populism of President Andrew Jackson in early nineteenth-century America.
Despite his determination to challenge the orthodoxies of the current political system and international order, however, Trump cannot escape history. The same powerful forces that both empowered and constrained his modern predecessors have shaped his administration’s first one hundred days, for good and ill. Trump’s triumphs have revealed familiar alignments of political actors and motivations, just as his tragedies have followed a recognizable script. As Mark Twain reputedly mused, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
I recently co-edited the anthology Triumphs & Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Case Studies in Presidential Leadership, published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. In it we asked some of the top historians, journalists and political scientists in the country to search for and identify those rhymes and cadences of history. Our writers examined the first one hundred days of every post–World War II president, the architects of the “American Century.” These case studies offer important lessons in successful presidential leadership, as well as pitfalls that any new administration would do well to avoid. Above all, this examination suggests that a sense of humility and awe is in order that is not yet apparent as President Trump approaches his first hundred days mark as the least popular president in modern times, according to a recent Gallup poll.
One Hundred Days
Virtually every president of the modern era has chafed at the “First One Hundred Days” as an artificial measuring stick, one set impossibly high by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, when he shepherded fifteen major new laws through a compliant Congress. And yet none of FDR’s predecessors have fully escaped the “hundred days” expectations game, in part because this liftoff phase is when new presidents and administrations are at their most aspirational, and thus revealing. The personalities and priorities illuminated in this early period of governing make an indelible first impression, giving the new administration a chance to develop a presidential narrative before the political winds inevitably shift, and unforeseen crises sidetrack and distract.
The first hundred days are also when election headwinds are at their strongest, and mandates can be claimed and leveraged. A president’s party almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections, for instance, making it imperative that a new administration starts strong. Lyndon B. Johnson, the master legislator and presidential arm twister who early on achieved one of the most transformative legislative agendas in modern history, described this phenomenon best.
“I keep hitting hard because I know this honeymoon won’t last. Every day I lose a little more political capital. That’s why we have to keep at it, never letting up,” Johnson said. “One day soon, I don’t know when, the critics and the snipers will move in and we will be at stalemate. [After a few months lawmakers will] all be thinking about their reelections. I’ll have made mistakes, my polls will be down, and they’ll be trying to put some distance between themselves and me. They won’t want to go into the fall with their opponents calling ’em Lyndon Johnson’s rubber stamp.”
President Donald Trump would do well to heed his predecessor, lest his own honeymoon end with little legislative achievement to show for it.
A Bureaucratic Behemoth
Every president confronts a different set of challenges, and their administrations must navigate specific economic, domestic political, and geopolitical landscapes. One constant has been the increasing size and complexity of the U.S. government itself, however, as the country grew into its mantle as the leader of the Western democracies after World War II, becoming an undisputed superpower in the Cold War and post–Cold War eras.
Modern presidents have to stock the massive executive-branch bureaucracies responsible for overseeing the largest economy in the world, and underwriting an international order that is largely dependent on the United States to enforce its rules and norms with a globe-spanning diplomatic corps and military. They have to appoint no fewer than fifteen Cabinet secretaries, and shepherd more than one thousand political appointees through an increasingly cumbersome vetting and confirmation process. The number of congressional committees and staff that new administrations have to navigate has likewise proliferated to provide oversight of an expanded federal bureaucracy, further complicating the process of staffing a new administration. The average time required for Senate confirmation of a top-level political appointee, for instance, has grown, from less than three months during the Kennedy administration to roughly nine months in the twenty-first century.
The unexpected nature of Trump’s victory—and a controversial campaign that saw more than 120 Republican national security and foreign affairs experts sign “Never Trump” letters that have reportedly led the Trump team to blacklist them—greatly complicated efforts to quickly stock the Trump administration with appointees. The Trump transition team simply had less time to prepare than more traditional campaigns. Ronald Reagan began his transition planning even before he was formally nominated, for instance, with a large personnel recruiting operation and task forces covering the major executive-branch agencies.
The Trump team arguably got off to a good start by quickly naming former Republican National Committee chairman and establishment insider Reince Priebus as his chief of staff shortly after the election. By naming anti-establishment populist Steve Bannon of Breitbart News notoriety as an apparently coequal White House counselor, however, Trump created competing power centers in the West Wing that that have often clashed, slowing the process of appointing personnel. Those turf wars, combined with Trump’s micromanagement of the process by insisting on signing off on each new hire, has left hundreds of critical jobs in the federal government vacant one hundred days into the administration’s tenure.
According to data from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, of the 553 key appointments that require Senate approval, the White House has only nominated 24 people and 22 have been confirmed. Below those key positions are thousands of other personnel slots that have also not been filled. The results are frustrated Cabinet officials, poor agency morale, and an understaffed administration struggling to move an ambitious legislative agenda. After one hundred days, the ship of state is sailing into stormy waters with an inexperienced captain and a skeletal crew on deck.
Presidents who win in landslides like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson obviously have distinct advantages in their first hundred days. As only the fourth president in U.S. history to win in the Electoral College only to lose the popular vote, Trump has a much more limited mandate. Like FDR, LBJ and Barack Obama, however, his party has initially enjoyed a majority status in Congress, though not a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Even Trump’s singular achievement in his first one hundred days — appointing conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court – required Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, to invoke the “nuclear option” and confirm the appointment with a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 votes that have traditionally been required.
Trump has taken a page from the first hundred days of George W. Bush, who at the time of his election was the first president in a century to lose the popular vote. After the Supreme Court intervened to eventually swing the election his way, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney rejected the idea of scaling back their ambitions given a razor-thin margin of victory. “To do so would show weakness from the start, the two reasoned,” Peter Baker, New York Times chief White House correspondent, and author of “Days of Fire: Bush & Cheney in the White House,” writes in Triumphs & Tragedies. “‘Our attitude was hell no,’ Cheney later recalled [about suggestions that the new administration should compromise early on its agenda]. ‘We got elected. You don’t now go for half tax reform. We’re not going to leave half the children behind. No, it’s full speed ahead.’”
Yet Trump has repeatedly fallen victim to the most common mistake made by new presidents by underestimating the power lawmakers have to delay or derail a presidential agenda, and thus the need to nurture good relations with key members of Congress. That is especially true of chief executives who ran as Washington outsiders, such as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who initially focused on developing a national security strategy, and chose not to even send a first-year domestic program to Congress; and Jimmy Carter, who after the Watergate scandal and Nixon impeachment rode an anti-Washington wave to the White House, and surrounded himself with aides from Georgia who often kept Capitol Hill at arm’s length.
The gold standard in congressional relations was once again Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate.” “It is almost impossible to overestimate how much LBJ benefited from having served in Congress for twenty-seven years, six years of which he spent as Majority Leader in the Senate,” the noted historian Michael Beschloss writes in Triumphs & Tragedies. “Having witnessed numerous presidential failures with Congress, Johnson designed his programs from the ground up in concert with influential Members of Congress. Having worked intimately with most party leaders, committee chairmen, and ranking Republicans, he had a deep wellspring of personal relationships and knowledge of the players on which to draw.”
As the classic outsider, Trump needed to lean heavily on vice president and former congressman Mike Pence and chief of staff and former RNC chairman Reince Priebus to keep the channels of communication to Capitol Hill open and the Republican caucus united behind his agenda. And yet Bannon and his close aides were responsible for the furor created by the hastily executed immigration ban that was thwarted by the federal courts. Trump’s notable failure to unite a fractious Republican caucus behind his “repeal and replacement” of Obamacare, even while uniting Democrats in opposition, was similarly the kind of early misstep likely to rile lawmakers with long memories.
Overloading the Circuits
Another common mistake of new presidents is trying to ram through an overly ambitious agenda that shorts congressional circuits. Jimmy Carter arguably made this mistake by rapidly pushing a long list of proposals for specific new legislation, including bills on energy conservation, tax reform, hospital cost control and welfare reform, among many other initiatives. He even de-funded nineteen water projects without first consulting lawmakers whose districts were affected. “Members of Congress warned the administration that the president was insisting on too many action issues for Congress to handle at any one time,” James Pfiffer, George Mason professor of Public Policy, and author of “The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running,” writes in Triumphs & Tragedies. “The plethora of legislative proposals was aggravated by Carter’s refusal to set priorities” and his “disdain for Congress.”
Ronald Reagan learned from Carter’s mistakes. His transition team decided to focus on just a few major policy priorities. Reagan also used his considerable charm to court the Democratic speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, and the two Irish Americans developed a cordial relationship that saw them fight fierce legislative battles, yet meet regularly to share drinks and salty jokes at the end of the week. Reagan was also aided by a clearly articulated governing philosophy that was well understood by his team.
“The agenda of Ronald Reagan’s ‘First Hundred Days’ in office—indeed, in large measure, the agenda of the first year of his presidency—was defined by the promises of his 1980 election campaign. . . . [H]e repeatedly pledged to cut taxes, boost military spending, and balance the federal budget by reducing domestic spending,” Lou Cannon, Reagan’s biographer, writes in Triumphs & Tragedies. “Reagan’s running start was aided by a compilation (later called ‘the Holy Scrolls’) . . . of every policy statement that Reagan made during the campaign. New appointees were given copies of these statements and were told that they were the blueprints of administration policies.”
By contrast, Trump has consistently overloaded Congressional circuits and sowed chaos about his governing philosophy and priorities. Even as he closes in on the one hundred days mark on April 29, the White House has made demands on funding his border wall and increasing defense spending that could lead to a government shutdown later this week. Trump is also preparing to take a second swing at “repeal and replacing” Obamacare, and he has promised to unveil once-in-a-generation tax reform this week.
The arithmetic involved in that agenda is simple yet challenging for a White House that has made no effort to win over Democrats. Largely as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, any initiative requiring major funding will require a “super majority” of 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. To achieve his agenda, Trump will thus have to hold a fractious Republican majority together in the House, and attract the support of at least eight Senate Democrats. Failure to do so risks the entire Trump agenda hitting a brick wall, including not only a promised defense buildup, but also a $1 trillion infrastructure program as well as tax reform.
“The debacle of the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans failing to repeal Obamacare showed that it will be very hard for the Trump administration to hold together hardline and more establishment factions in the House,” Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), told me. Secondly, it also showed that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are still in no mood to compromise. “And I’ve seen no legislative strategy coming from the White House to overcome those obstacles and move their agenda.”
Admittedly such cordial relationships as Reagan and Tip O’Neill established across the political aisle increasingly seem part of a bygone era, and that partisanship is another drag on a modern president’s first hundred days. Given the bitterness of the election campaign and its aftermath—which prompted more than fifty Democrats to boycott President Trump’s inauguration—plus Trump’s penchant for constantly stirring up controversy 140 characters at a time, a bipartisan consensus on his major agenda items seems unlikely in the extreme. Trump’s baseless charge that President Obama illegally had him wiretapped during the campaign, the false claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for nearly three million illegal votes, and the top priority the White House put on repealing Obama’s signature legislative achievement with health care have all put Congressional Democrats in a bad temper. In a similar fashion, congressional Republicans and party leaders gathered on the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration to formulate a strategy for opposing him at every turn. That dynamic of hyper-partisanship will make it imperative that Trump keeps Republican leaders in Congress united behind his agenda, and finds leverage to win over at least some Democrats.
“Since partisan polarization in Congress has greatly increased over the past several decades, the success of future presidents during their first hundred days will increasingly depend on the partisan balance of Congress,” Pfiffner writes. “This polarization has resulted in much stronger party discipline in which the president’s party almost always supports presidential priorities, while the opposing party tries to thwart the president . . . [with] obstructionist parliamentary tactics.”
After one hundred days Trump has failed in his first priority of keeping his own majority party united.
A Controversial Cabinet
Partisan obstructionism has coalesced all the faster given Trump’s appointment of cabinet officials best known for opposing and criticizing the agencies they head. For the first time in history, for instance, Vice President Mike Pence had to break a Senate tie to confirm Trump’s unorthodox cabinet choice for Secretary of Education, wealthy Republican Party donor Betsy DeVos. Oklahoma attorney general and climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt was Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, despite the fact that he was best known nationally for suing the EPA. Likewise, former Texas governor Rick Perry was chosen to lead the Energy Department, which he proposed abolishing as a presidential candidate. Then there are cabinet picks with ethical clouds hanging over their heads, such as Treasury Department nominee and former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin, who on his initial questionnaire to the Senate Finance Committee failed to disclose $100 million in personal assets, as well as his role as director of a hedge fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven. Pushing controversial cabinet picks through Senate confirmation on party-line votes caused Trump to expend political capital he needed to pass other parts of his agenda.
Pursuing controversial policies, such as rapidly repealing Obamacare while promising “insurance for everybody,” building a wall on the southern border paid for by Mexico, renegotiating trade agreements that underpin global free trade, and implementing a temporary ban on immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries that has been widely interpreted as a Muslim-ban lite, has likewise forced Trump to expend precious political capital early on in his tenure.
There are certainly historical precedents where such controversies slowed the momentum of a new administration trying to start strong out of the gates. George H. W. Bush became bogged down in his unsuccessful secretary of defense nomination of Texas senator John Tower, who was opposed by powerful Democrats such as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, because of Tower’s reputation for drinking and carousing. Bill Clinton’s nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general likewise became embroiled in the “Nannygate” controversy, forcing her withdrawal. Clinton also became enmeshed in an unwelcome controversy when his unsuccessful effort to eliminate the ban on gays serving openly in the military was opposed by powerful congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Barack Obama’s early promise to close the Guántanamo Bay detention center within a year of his taking office was similarly thwarted by Congress.
In his ability to connect with the raucous crowds that represent his base, Trump follows in the tradition of modern presidents who have mastered the bully pulpit of the White House, whether it was Barack Obama’s soaring oratory, Bill Clinton’s folksy “feel your pain” speeches, or the inspiring rhetoric and self-deprecating wit of former actor Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator.”
In his unprecedented use of Twitter, Trump has inhabited a new communications medium like no president since Franklin Roosevelt used radio and his “fireside chats” to connect directly with an anxious public, and the telegenic John F. Kennedy created the aura of “Camelot” at the dawn of the age of television. As a direct and unfiltered conduit to Trump the provocateur, however, Twitter has proven a double-edged medium. Trump’s frequent Twitter rants help explain why he entered the Oval Office with the lowest approval rating of any modern American president, with some 48 percent of Americans viewing him in a negative light in an Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Nearing the “first one hundred days mark,” a recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans now disapprove of the job Trump is doing in the White House, a historic low for a president at this early stage.
One narrative thread that runs consistently through the case studies in Triumphs & Tragedies of the Modern Presidency is the testing of new presidents by crisis. Of course, many administrations are born of crisis. Franklin Roosevelt assumed power at the height of the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Gerald Ford’s ascension ended what he called the “long national nightmare” of Watergate and the Nixon impeachment. Barack Obama’s first weeks and months in the Oval Office were consumed by a global financial meltdown and the Great Recession. And then there were the presidents who inherited hot wars that demanded immediate attention and decisions with life-and-death consequences, including Harry Truman (World War II), Dwight Eisenhower (the Korean War), Richard Nixon (Vietnam) and Barack Obama (Iraq and Afghanistan).
For those who would govern the “shining city on a hill” and lead “the indispensable nation,” crisis is always lurking just beyond the visible horizon. Consider that in their defining first years in the Oval Office, Harry Truman decided to drop the first atomic bombs on Japan; John F. Kennedy endured the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba; Gerald Ford faced the Mayaguez crisis in Cambodia and the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese; Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt; George H. W. Bush launched the invasion of Panama; Bill Clinton confronted the “Black Hawk Down” military debacle in Somalia; and George W. Bush was rocked by the worst attack on the U.S. homeland since Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001.
Trump and his team entered the White House determined to “break some china” in international relations, and then spent much of the first one hundred days reversing their positions as the crockery piled up. Trump initially called the United States’ bedrock security alliance NATO “obsolete,” and then decided it was not obsolete after all. He called for renegotiating the One China policy with Beijing, and promised to label it a currency manipulator, and then backed off on both fronts. Who knew that relations with a rising major power with the second largest economy in the world could be so complicated? A promise to renegotiate the NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada has likewise been put on the back burner. Breaking with a half century of U.S. peacemaking policy in trying to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump insisted that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were not an impediment to peace, and he promised to move the U.S. embassy to disputed Jerusalem. Then he reversed himself. He promised an outreach to the dictator Vladimir Putin, even after the Russian strongman has redrawn the borders of Eastern Europe by military force, and meddled in our recent presidential election. Then Trump and his generals infuriated Putin by firing missiles at Russian ally Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
Nearly all of these policy reversals can be viewed as welcome evidence of an outspoken candidate and inexperienced commander-in-chief maturing in the Oval Office, the world’s most unforgiving crucible. In his first one hundred days, however, Trump has revealed an appetite for disruption and confrontation. The brewing nuclear weapons crisis between the United States and North Korea — and the history of the modern presidency — suggests that he won’t have to wait long to indulge it.
This article is an update of a piece that originally appeared in the National Interest.
James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and author of the recent book “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War.” (Basic Books, 2016). He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written on defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, DC for more than two decades. You can follow him on Twitter: @JamesKitfield.