With any new president, there’s a learning curve. But for President Trump, it’s been steeper than others.
“Mount Everest” is how Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, described it ahead of Trump’s 100th day in office, which is coming up Saturday, April 29. “It’s as steep as they come and ice-covered, and he didn’t bring very many knowledgeable Sherpas with him.”
Trump’s ascension to the presidency is an unlikely story. The flashy New York billionaire and former reality TV star cuts a very different image than any American president before him. He’s the first with no government, military or political experience. In an age of frustration with the political establishment on both sides of the aisle, that background had a certain appeal.
But Trump’s unique background has also brought with it some problems. He’s faced setbacks and turnabouts, from immigration executive orders hung up in the courts and a failed health care overhaul attempt to changing his mind on his approach to Syria, Russia, China and NATO. All of it points to on-the-job training for Trump, who had a resume before taking office that could be considered, for a president, entry-level, experts say.
“This man is without experience, and it’s showing,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian and author of multiple books on presidents, from Roosevelt and Truman to Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan. “Particularly in his dealings with Congress, he’s been an utter failure in the sense that he’s gotten nothing passed. He’s issuing all sorts of executive orders, like immigration limits; they’re failing. The attempt to get health care reform failed. I’d give him failing marks for his 100 days.”
Trump’s White House would argue that he has gotten significant things accomplished, including seating a Supreme Court justice, beginning to roll back Obama-era regulations, which they believe stifle economic growth, as well as taking a firm hand on the international stage. This president, unlike President Obama, for example, punished Syria’s Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people.
But these first 100 days have been anything but smooth. There have been legislative stops and starts; hectic management in the White House, including infighting between family and advisers and the shortest tenure of any national security adviser in history; and many, many key positions in his administration remain unfilled.
Even getting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court required the outsider president relying on the ultimate insider, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to blow up the filibuster for court picks.
At least, in part, the failures may be the result of Trump’s political inexperience.
“Is this an entry-level president? I think that’s too generous,” Perry argued. “Unless he would be an intern, he would not have a position in the White House — with no educational experience, no military experience, no government, no political experience, most of it was running for president.”
And she points out that the kind of life experience Trump has may be ill-suited to the presidency, because presidents since FDR have faced five times more foreign policy or military crises than economic ones in their first year.
“That concerned me when looking at someone like Trump,” Perry said, adding, “This president has no experience in the areas that we’ve always valued in a president, and the experience he does have has not proved helpful in past presidents.”
Of course, there have been other presidents without lengthy political experience, like Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, for example. And Trump, who is 70, has had a lifetime of experience in real estate and marketing.
But business experience is not something historians say carries much weight when it comes to the presidency.
“The problem with people who say we need a businessman is that the government isn’t a business,” said historian Richard Norton Smith, who has written several political biographies, including on another businessman president, Herbert Hoover. Smith has also run several presidential museums, libraries and foundations dedicated to Lincoln, Reagan, Eisenhower, Ford and Hoover.
Hoover, a wealthy mine engineer and consultant before becoming president, had significant business experience around the globe. But he’s looked upon by many today as a president who didn’t meet the greatest challenge of his time, the Great Depression.
And Hoover had far more political experience than Trump, having served as Commerce secretary under two presidents, and ran massive relief efforts in Europe during World War I.
“Profit-loss statements don’t take into account the irrationality of Kim Jong Un,” Smith said of the North Korean leader. “Corporate budgets don’t have to allow for military defense. All these kinds of perfectly rational expectations that apply in a corporate world are rarely applicable in the less-than-rational world of politics. … If you’ve not been tempered, yourself, in the fires of politics, you’re operating at a real disadvantage.”
Despite that lack of experience or results, there has been a lot of boasting from Trump. Since the start of his presidency, it has ranged from as petty as his inauguration crowd size to as grand as his legacy.
“There are those that say I’ve done more than anybody in the first 100 days,” Trump said two months ago. “There are those that are saying that I’ve done just about more than anybody.”
At that point, he’d signed a handful of executive orders, but hadn’t gotten any major legislative accomplishments under his belt — and he still hasn’t.
“As usual,” Dallek said, “he engages in hyperbole when he said that nobody has accomplished more in the first 100 days than he has, which is utter nonsense.”
Dallek pointed out that the “100 days” marker originated with FDR’s presidency, and FDR got 15 major pieces of legislation passed in the midst of the Depression.
“Trump has fed that the country is facing some kind of crisis,” Dallek said. And yet, he’s gotten little accomplished.
“Nobody knew” it “could be so complicated”
Trump has revealed a measure of his own surprise with the difficulty of the job.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump said in February, as GOP leaders were pushing — and struggling — to get their plan to repeal-and-replace the Affordable Care Act through the House.
Of course, it took Obama more than a year to pass the ACA, not 17 days, the timeline of start to failure for the GOP House bill.
In the Oval Office, after the bill was pulled, Trump conceded that he was still learning.
“We all learned a lot,” Trump said. “We learned a lot about loyalty. We learned a lot about the vote-getting process. We learned a lot about some very arcane rules in, obviously, both the Senate and in the House. So it’s been — certainly for me, it’s been a very interesting experience.”
But it’s not clear what Trump learned exactly. Just in the last couple of days, the White House was raising stakes for another health care bill with talk of a potential deal between moderates and conservatives. Trump’s team wants another vote this upcoming week (while a government shutdown looms Friday).
Meantime, experienced congressional leaders were trying to tamp that kind of talk down. Expectations-setting is a big part of success in politics, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Trump who appears to think the bigger the expectation, the better.
He even added this wrinkle Friday: “We’ll be having a big announcement on Wednesday having to do with tax reform,” Trump said, vowing to release his tax reform plan ahead of the artifice of the 100-day mark. “The process has begun long ago, but it really formally begins on Wednesday.”
And yet, a White House official downplayed whether there would be a plan by the middle of the week. “Maybe not, no guarantees,” the official told Politico.
That is the kind of unnecessary chaos that has marked this 100 days from the start. Remember how botched the rollout was for that first travel ban executive order? It affected real people’s lives, stuck in airports as officials were initially unclear who exactly the order applied to.
“He’s a man of such grandiosity,” Dallek said. “He has to be the best, the greatest. His use of language is always overstating what he is doing or expects to do. It’s counter-logical, in part.”
Another example of Trump’s learning curve was on China and North Korea. Trump was supposedly preparing to pressure China’s President Xi into doing more on North Korea while at Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
Trump said he learned again, this time about the complexity of the relationship — from Xi.
“After listening for 10 minutes,” Trump said, “I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”
That was a remarkable statement. After all, Trump thundered for a year and a half about China and trade on the campaign trail, accusing it of raping and “killing” America. And after a 10-minute conversation, he pulled back?
Most presidents with political experience would have known what there was to know about the nuance of the relationship going into the meeting, armed with detail about what current leverage could be used.
And that information would have been learned through the myriad of global experts, who now happen to work for Trump at the State Department, CIA, Pentagon or even the National Security Council in his White House.
Other presidents have had setbacks in their first 100 days and got over them
Think of Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs.
Think of the worst event in a president’s first 100 days — the country broke apart under the man most rank as the best American president of all time, Abraham Lincoln.
But both adjusted — even if it wore on them. Kennedy set up an executive committee to gain better information. And he even consulted with his predecessor of a different party, Eisenhower, for advice — despite the fact that neither man was much of a fan of the other.
Lincoln’s political efforts to bring the country back together were a turning point in American history and now the stuff of too many books and movies to count.
But whether a president wants to or is capable of adjusting is a key question, one that centers on humility and temperament.
Trump has shown some capacity to learn and adjust. He has shifted on a host of issues that have moved more toward what’s considered the mainstream. On foreign policy, he’s toughened his posture toward Syria and Russia.
On economics, he didn’t label China a currency manipulator after vowing to do so during the campaign. He hasn’t torn up NAFTA yet, and he’s now praising Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. During the campaign, he said she should be “ashamed” for being so “political” in keeping interest rates low. Now he says he likes the low rates.
One man’s inconsistency is another’s flexibility; it depends on your lens.
“Smart enough,” but is he humble enough?
Obama had very limited experience. He was young, only served two years in the Senate before running for president and had been a state senator before that. But he was studied and intellectually curious.
Trump feasts on a diet of cable news, prefers his information in bullet form on one page and listens to family and various loyalists.
“He seems to be a smart enough man,” Perry said, “but he seems to be intellectually incurious. I think that’s why he sounds so uninformed.”
Trump also sows chaos and confusion while lacking a degree of self-reflection and humility, which may mean more of the same after 100 days.
“Is he going to learn anything from his failures and his shortcomings?” Dallek asked. “I don’t know. He doesn’t seem inclined to say, ‘I’m wrong’ or ‘I made a mistake.’ He’s so resistant. There may not be a significant learning curve; he may just keep going this direction because that’s just part of his character.”
Politics has changed, and that’s not good
Views of “politics” among the public have gotten worse. It’s not just trust in Congress or politicians themselves, but in the connotation the word now holds.
Politics is no longer seen as “the art of the possible.” It’s dismissed as something nefarious.
And Smith thinks that’s part of what’s created the climate for someone like Trump to be able to win.
“We say idealistically we want someone above politics,” Smith said, “and if we mean it, we invite disaster.”
What does he mean by that?
“Politics is a profession,” Smith said. “It’s as simple as that. Anyone can call themselves a journalist today who has a camera. That doesn’t make them a journalist; it makes them a person with a camera. It’s a discipline to be taught and to be learned. Politics is no different, and it doesn’t mean that political neophytes are doomed to failure; it does mean that the higher on the ladder you climb, the greater the risk of failure if you are lacking in political experience and judgment.”
Ulysses S. Grant, the renowned Civil War general who became the country’s 18th president, seemed to fall victim to that. In his final message to Congress in 1876, he said (emphasis ours):
“It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. From the age of 17 I had never even witnessed the excitement attending a Presidential campaign but twice antecedent to my own candidacy, and at but one of them was I eligible as a voter. Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred. … Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit….”
Grant was praised for his military skill, but here, he is admitting that his lack of “political training” hampered his presidency.
Today, it’s en vogue to campaign against politics.
“People get elected to office by denouncing politics,” Smith said.
And that is likely not good for democracy.
“We reached a tipping point, where casual, unthinking cynicism was set afire,” Smith said. “Since John Kennedy, the president has been celebrity in chief. It’s not surprising 50 or 60 years later, the president is basically a celebrity and all that that portends.”