The First Day of the Rest of the Presidency

April 27, 2017

Only one president in the past century had a first 100 days of any consequence. That was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who enjoyed advantages no other commander in chief had.

The former New York governor entered office with a huge mandate, having won 57% of the popular vote and nearly 90% of the Electoral College. In addition to carrying 42 of 48 states, FDR’s Democrats had a 59-36 advantage over Republicans in the Senate and a 313-seat majority in the House. The urgency of the Great Depression also gave Roosevelt extraordinary leverage to pass legislation.

Comparisons between Roosevelt’s historic opening and any other president’s first months are strained and artificial, but the press is obsessed with the milestone. Donald Trump contributed to their mania late in the campaign by offering a 100-day plan to make America secure and prosperous.

Much of this plan has yet to be passed into law or even introduced, but Mr. Trump has nonetheless compiled some respectable achievements. He recruited an impressive cabinet, especially in the foreign-policy and national-security areas. His spectacular Supreme Court nominee was confirmed, and Mr. Trump greenlighted the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He took action against Syria, adopted a surprisingly tough line on Russia, and held positive meetings with world leaders.

Mr. Trump froze hiring of many federal workers, required rescinding two regulations of equal cost for every new rule created, and signed laws repealing last-minute Obama regulations that cost the economy billions. The stock market is up around 14% since Election Day and consumers are more confident than they’ve been in years.

Mr. Trump also points to nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, issuing dozens of executive orders, browbeating Ford and Carrier to keep jobs in America, and slowing illegal immigration. Not all the executive orders needed to be executive orders, but that’s unimportant to voters, who want to see action, strength, and promises being kept.

On the down side, the president’s poorly drafted travel ban blew up and his sanctuary-city executive order could too. Worse, House Freedom Caucus members stymied ObamaCare’s repeal and replacement, slowing the administration’s overall momentum. Tax reform will take until the fall—it always would—and remains a heavy lift. The administration seems more ragged, unfocused, understaffed and disorganized than any other in modern times, prone to overpromising and under-delivering.

This all leaves Mr. Trump with only 42% of Americans approving his performance, according to the RealClearPolitics average. With a 53% disapproval, the president easily earns the worst numbers ever recorded at this point. The Gallup average for modern presidents around this time is 61% approval. Mr. Trump had no honeymoon as president.

Yet 96% of his 2016 supporters would vote for him again, according to an April 17-20 ABC/Washington Post survey. Matched against Hillary Clinton in the poll, Mr. Trump turns a two-point deficit in last fall’s popular vote into a 43% to 40% advantage. This is good news for Mr. Trump, but he can’t rely on Democrats again nominating someone as immensely unlikable and deeply flawed as Mrs. Clinton. Nor can Team Trump count on a left-wing lunatic as the Democratic 2020 standard-bearer, which would result in a GOP romp to victory.

Another troubling sign: While Mr. Trump is seen as “a strong leader” by 53% in the ABC/Washington Post survey, a majority thinks he “lacks the judgment and the temperament it takes to serve effectively.” Meantime, about 6 voters in 10 doubt his honesty and think he is out of touch.

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This should provide openings for Democrats, but they have little to gloat about. While 47% said in an April 17-20 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll they favored a Democratic Congress in the midterms, 43% favored keeping Republicans in charge. Democrats led on this measure by 9 points in April 2009 before being soundly beaten in the next midterm elections.

Because they control the White House and Congress, Republicans have the advantage of being masters of their own fate. They can shape the 2018 narrative by getting things done, especially on the economy. Democrats must hope the GOP screws up at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s a distinct possibility, but if Republicans don’t, there’s no good foothold for Democrats.

The first 100 days of the Trump presidency shouldn’t bring comfort to either party: The Trump legacy will be decided by what happens after this arbitrary milestone. The president would be wise to recalibrate, reset and make changes in how he operates before today’s lowly ratings lock in place.

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