In his first 100 days, President Trump has learned the harsh realities of being a US President in the post-Reagan era, as political analyst Richard Wagner explains.

Who came up with this 100-day stuff anyway?  This is the question we hear from many Trump supporters in the last few days.  They see Trump as a man trying to make a difference for the better, but being stonewalled by Congress and the mainstream media.  Obama supporters likely felt the same way in the second half of 2009 during the healthcare debates.

The 100-day benchmark began with Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In the Great Depression, America was ready to scrap the tradition of checks and balances in favor of a strong leader, a savior.  FDR was the first President to truly lead with a legislative agenda.  That is, he made the policies, and Congress went along with it.  He hasn’t been an absolute ruler, of course, and did have to compromise, but he was nonetheless largely leading the policy making process.  This began the Presidential era, which lasted through Reagan’s administration, and seems to have ended with the first Bush.  When George H. W. Bush went back on his famous promise – “Read my lips, no new taxes” – and agreed to a tax increase, this symbolized the end of the Presidential Era and the beginning of this Post-Presidential era in which we currently reside.  

In the Post-Presidential Era, candidates run for President as though it were still the Presidential Era.  They make many promises, their agenda is clearly legislative (that is, they intend to pass laws, not merely execute them), and there is a little consideration as to whether or not these policies will make it through Congress.  If the President fails to deliver on his promise, he is held responsible.  Whatever goes wrong in the country is largely seen as the president’s fault, and when things go well, the president is praised.  

Enters Trump

Donald Trump had no experience whatsoever in public office.  All of his experience was in business, where he made the decisions, he executed the decisions, and if someone under him didn’t perform to his standards – you’re fired.  Trump made many promises during the campaign which go against the will of the political establishment.  One can determine the will of the political establishment by looking at those policies that seem to get largely bipartisan support in Congress.

It’s safe to say that the political establishment supports a largely interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East, diplomacy and trade with China, most free trade agreements, containment of Russia, and a willingness to compromise civil liberties in the name of national security.  Only on that last one did candidate Trump largely agree with them.

Candidate Trump was probably the most pro-Russian of all of the candidates of both parties.  He frequently promised tariffs on China and was critical of free trade agreements, supported a more limited role in the Middle East focused on attacking ISIS, rather than trying to topple governments that haven’t posed a direct threat to the US.  Either Trump was lying, or he had every intention of carrying this out, and had no idea what he was getting himself into.

A recent press release from the White House Office of the Press Secretary summarizes how the Trump administration is explaining the first 100 days.  The press release includes the following:

o   Sent a message to the world with his swift and decisive order to strike the Syrian air base that launched a horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.

o   Further isolated Syria and Russia at the United Nations through successful diplomacy with President Xi Jinping of China.

o   Imposed sanctions on Syria for its use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.

o   Imposed sanctions on Iran for violating an international agreement that restricts its ballistic missile programs.

o   Worked to isolate North Korea and repositioned military assets to confront the regime’s provocative missile tests.

Only two of these points on President Trump are consistent with the positions of candidate Trump.  Trump did campaign on being tougher on Iran and North Korea.  His position on Syria and Russia are clearly the most radical changes he has made.  He has also now made it clear that he will not be imposing tariffs on China right now because he’s trying to pressure them to pressure N. Korea to end its development of long-range missiles, which could develop well enough to reach US soil.

The spin

Trump’s most loyal supporters will defend his changes to the best of their abilities.  They will say that Trump has changed on Syria in light of new evidence, that being the sarin gas attacks.  They’ll argue that any promises he hasn’t been able to deliver on are largely due to Congress and the political establishment standing in his way.

Trump’s critics from the left will pounce on this opportunity like a hungry cheetah on a gazelle.  They’ll say Trump is a con man who had no intention of changing America’s trading policies.  On that point, the spin from the left will be consistent.  

On Trump’s changing foreign policy, however, the hawks on the left, making up the left side of the political establishment, will say very little.  Trump is doing what they want, they have no desire to compliment him, so following Hillary Clinton’s lead, the only thing they’ll say is that they wish he’d do more.  The doves on the left, however, have been able to return to their comfort zone, where the Republicans are the warmongers, and pick up where they left off at the end of the Bush era, with new rounds of protests.

Trump’s critics on the right will be the least critical of all.  They, after all, are the right side of the political establishment, and they now see President Trump starting to implement more of their policy agenda.  They’ll likely shower Trump with praise for finally becoming presidential and governing, rather than campaigning.

Of the three, the Trump loyalists are closest to the mark, but even they fail to understand what is most crucial here.

The reality

Since the time of Bush, Presidents appear to lead but follow.  They are seen as leaders, and they are held responsible for what happens in government and even the economy.  If they try to explain that their power is limited, they’re accused of “making excuses”.  It’s in the best interest of the opposing political party in Congress, therefore, to see the president fail.  Despite very lower approval ratings, Congress is rarely held accountable, and incumbents are re-elected over 80% of the time, even during the Tea Party insurgence of 2010.  

A President must, therefore, implement the policies largely wanted by the political establishment so that they can be seen as leading, or they are likely to face a crushing defeat in the next election.

How Trump is coping with reality  

Though Trump did change his policy on Syria, it should be noted that he only approved a single strike on one Syrian air base.  This was nowhere near enough to cripple the Assad regime, but it was enough for him to gain political capital, that is, support in Congress.

As explained before, Trump’s decision has largely earned him praise from both the political establishment and mainstream media.  On China, Trump has been saying that China could stop N. Korea’s missile development if they want to.  This may indicate that Trump will expect very quick results from China, or the leeway he has given them will not last long.  

As the political establishment does not want N. Korea to have long range missiles which potentially could strike US soil in Hawaii or the continent, Trump will not have trouble keeping their support regarding Korea.  He may be able to use this to get more of what he wants regarding China.  

Further, Trump is indicating that he still plans to either renegotiate or withdraw from NAFTA.  Trump was proposing an executive order to withdraw from NAFTA but was convinced to hold off.  Three days ago Trump’s Press Sec. Sean Spicer announced that NAFTA would not be repealed for now.  But this issue is clearly still on the table.

Only time will tell how far Trump will be willing to go in order to show he is governing.  But Congress holds most of the cards, and the media holds a few more.  Will Trump drain the swamp, or will the swamp drain Trump?

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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