One hundred days is a wholly arbitrary standard by which to judge an administration’s success but it is as lasting a Franklin Roosevelt legacy as social security, and the Trump administration validated it as a measuring stick for grading its performance, so here’s my preliminary assessment.
The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was a major achievement, even at the significant price paid of ending the 60-vote threshold for confirmation of Supreme Court justices. Not only is Gorsuch an eminently qualified selection, but his appointment served the crucial purpose of affirming to conservatives that however erratic Trump may otherwise be, he made good on his promise of a solid high-court selection. That will buy the president an awful lot of sail to make mistakes in other domains before conservatives desert him.
And he will need it, because the rest of his agenda has run aground. Despite what is ostensibly his political party in command of both houses of Congress, the president suffered a huge defeat by failing to pass legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare. The president’s cursory attempts seemed to falter on his lack of substantive understanding of the issue and the legislation, his failure to comprehend that ostensible allies had alternatives to supporting him, and his issuance of hollow threats easily dismissed by his adversaries.
Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees was an even higher-profile failure. Unlike the executive order on the National Security Council, whose deficiencies seem to be more of sloppiness in drafting rather than malevolence, the immigration EO seemed purposeful. Not only did the attempt damage America’s standing in the world and fray the country’s multicultural cohesion, but Trump energised the courts, civil society groups, and a wide swathe of Americans to oppose his policy. Crazily enough, the Trump administration’s illiberal tendencies may prove a boon for American democracy by revitalising the checks and balances that constrain executive action, and stimulating civics education.
In the national security realm, Trump has needlessly alienated America’s friends and shown himself decidedly unserious about addressing the paramount vulnerability of our country, which is our rapidly accruing national debt. His budget request would wildly expand deficit spending, relying on draconian cuts to small-ticket discretionary items (like the State Department budget) without addressing the entitlements elephant that will very quickly crowd out all other government spending - even before the interest rate hikes the Federal Reserve has initiated kick in to bond market prices. To the president’s credit, he did make clear his priorities. Budgets are, after all, documents that reveal governing priorities. But Trump doesn’t appear to have legislative support to pass such a budget. Coming on the heels of other legislative failures, the budget is more likely to highlight the president’s ineffectualness at governing.
The selection of reasonable men for the cabinet’s national security portfolios, and fortuitous immolation of the deeply compromised national security advisor Mike Flynn, has attenuated concern about the Trump administration’s handling of foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the unfolding of Syria policy seems likely to parallel in its deficiencies the characteristics of the president’s domestic policies. A reasonable but unarticulated policy driven by the DOD has emerged: Increase the pace of military operations to defeat the Islamic State, leave President Bashar al-Assad in place to prevent a post-Islamic State power vacuum, prioritise co-operation against the Islamic State in relations with Middle East countries over concerns about domestic governance or their conduct of military operations, and respect Russian interests. In the space of 24 hours by Trump’s reaction to the 25th or so use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, he changed course, electing to punitively strike a jointly manned Syrian-Russia air base from which the attack was launched.
Maybe none of this will matter to the president’s supporters but if the characteristics on display in the health care thrust and Syria are indicative of Trump’s governing skills, not even the deliberative men of his cabinet can compensate for these deficiencies.
In the American system of government, there’s no way to marginalise the influence of the president.