Franklin D. Roosevelt invented the idea of a president’s first 100 days. Roosevelt was actually referring to the first 100 days of a special Congressional session to fight the Great Depression, as Robert Speel of Penn State notes. But the idea soon came to mean the 100 days that start on Jan. 20 and that, for President Trump, will end on Saturday.
No doubt, you’ve seen a torrent of coverage in recent days of the milestone. And while it’s certainly an arbitrary milestone, it’s also a meaningful one. Presidents are at their most influential in their early months, which makes that period a particularly important one for a presidency.
Here’s my reading of Trump’s start: It’s the least successful first 100 days since the concept existed.
Even if you forget about the content of his actions — whether they strengthened or weakened the country — and focus only on how much he accomplished, it’s a poor beginning. His supporters deserve to be disappointed, and his opponents should be cheered by how unsuccessful he has been so far.
Before now, the weakest starts probably belonged to Bill Clinton and to John F. Kennedy. Partly as a result, neither of them ended up being as consequential presidents as, say, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. And yet Trump’s first 100 days have been vastly weaker than Clinton’s or Kennedy’s:
Trump has made no significant progress on any major legislation. His health care bill is a zombie, and he’s only now releasing basic principles of a tax plan. By contrast, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had made substantial progress toward passing tax cuts, and Barack Obama had passed, among other things, a huge stimulus bill that also addressed education and climate policy.
Trump is far behind staffing his administration. Trump has made a mere 50 nominations to fill the top 553 positions of the executive branch, as of Friday. That’s right: He hasn’t even nominated anyone for 90 percent of its top jobs. The average president since 1989 had nominated twice as many, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
Part of the reason is a lack of execution: The administration has been slow to make nominations. And part of the reason is who is being nominated: A disproportionate number of affluent investors and business executives with many potential conflicts of interest that require vetting. Either way, the effects are real. The executive branch can’t push through the president’s priorities if it doesn’t have his people in place.
The Trump administration is more nagged by scandal than any previous administration. No new administration has dealt with a potential scandal anywhere near as large or as distracting as the Russia investigation. It could recede over time, true. But it also could come to dominate the Trump presidency.
Trump has no clear foreign policy. Is he protectionist, as he appeared to be when starting a trade spat with Canada on Tuesday, or a globalist, as he appeared when backing off his criticism of China? Is he an isolationist, an interventionist or some alternative? No one seems to know, which confuses allies and does a favor for rivals who would welcome diminished American influence.
Trump is by far the least popular new president in the modern polling era. His approval rating is just 41 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. All other elected presidents since Roosevelt have had an approval rating of at least 53 percent after 100 days. (Gerald Ford was at 45 percent.) Some, including Obama, Reagan and Johnson, have been above 60 percent.
Trump’s low approval isn’t only a reflection of his struggles. It also becomes a cause of further struggles. Members of Congress aren’t afraid to buck an unpopular president, which helps explain the collapse of Trumpcare.
Obviously, Trump can claim some successes on his own terms. Most consequentially, he has named a Supreme Court justice who could serve for decades. Trump has also put in place some meaningful executive orders, on climate policy above all, and he has allied the federal government with the cause of white nationalism, as Jonathan Chait wrote.
Trump remains the most powerful person in the country, if not the world. It would be foolish for anyone to be complacent about what he can do. Yet by the modern standards of the office, he is a weak president off to a uniquely poor start.
It’s worth considering one final point, too. So far, I’ve been judging him on his own terms. History, of course, will not. And I expect that a couple of his biggest so-called accomplishments — aggravating climate change and treating nonwhite citizens as less than fully American — are likely to be judged very harshly one day.
For a different take on Trump’s first 100 days, read Ross Douthat’s column today. The full Opinion report from The Times follows, including Frank Bruni’s look at a university’s efforts to help underpriveleged students and Dawn Eden Goldstein on the Pope’s comparison of refugee camps to concentration camps.