President Trump's slow start: Is that a problem?

A lot of attention is placed on a president's first 100 days in office, but historians say legacies are built by slower processes like coalition- and consensus-building.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Donald Trump, with Telma Mata (R) of the Heat and Frost Insulators Allied Workers Local 24, holds a roundtable meeting with labor leaders at the White House in Washington, Jan. 23.

President Trump isn’t exactly off to a running start. He’s announced only about 30 nominees for the top 700 or so key executive branch jobs. He’s taken only a few of the actions he promised for “day one” in the White House. He spent time litigating the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

But in the larger scheme of things this slow pace might not much matter. The presidency isn’t a sprint. It’s a four-year marathon. Success or failure hinges crucially on long-run issues of prosperity and peace. All presidents experience highs and lows. Their first hundred days isn’t necessarily determinative.

“Historically, that arbitrary benchmark has rarely correlated with the subsequent success or failure of a president’s time in office,” writes Rutgers historian and political scientist David Greenberg in an analysis for the First Year 2017 project of the Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Modern chief executives typically try to pack lots of action into their first hundred days, following the famous example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Faced with the crisis of the Great Depression upon becoming president, FDR pushed 15 major pieces of legislation through Congress in his first 105 days, laying the foundation for the US government as we know it today.

Following this tradition, Donald Trump compiled an extensive list of things he said he’d do right off in the Oval Office. They range from starting work on his promised wall along the southern border, to suspending the Syrian refugee program, labeling China a currency manipulator, and, in his words, canceling “every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum, and order issued by President Obama.”

And indeed, he’s already taken some big steps. He’s signed an executive order calling on his administration to fight the Affordable Care Act as much as possible. On Monday he withdrew the US from negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He blocked US aid for groups that promote or provide abortions overseas, and established a freeze on federal hiring.

More is sure to come, and soon. Does anyone doubt he’ll launch some sort of “impenetrable wall” effort?

Early day decisions

But the pace of movement hasn't been a sprint. And in some ways the things Trump hasn’t done are as interesting as the things he has.

For instance, Trump’s long said he would undo on Day 1 all of former President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, including Deferred Action with Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which blocks for now the deportation of young people brought here illegally as kids.

But DACA is still in place. On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer danced around the question of when, if ever, Trump would reverse this order. The president will prioritize the removal of serious criminals in the country illegally, Mr. Spicer said.

Spicer also hedged on another big Trump promise: moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. During the campaign Trump said flatly he’d do that as president. Trump’s incoming US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, staunchly supports the move.

But the press secretary indicated that the new administration was now in the process of discussing such a move with “stakeholders,” including Palestinians, who fiercely oppose it.

“We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process,” Spicer said.

Some of the hesitation apparent here surely is a result of the fact that things look much different from inside the White House than they do from inside a campaign rally arena. Many of the DACA kids, known also as DREAMers, are all but totally American. They are sympathetic characters – targeting them for possible deportation might not look good.

Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem could well provoke a new spate of violence in a fraught corner of the world.

And Trump’s generally slow pace could also be partly due to sheer lack of staff. The vast majority of the new cabinet has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Of the top 690 key positions in the executive branch subject to presidential appointment, exactly two had made it through to confirmation as of Monday, according to a political appointee tracker run by the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post. Twenty-nine nominees are awaiting confirmation. Six hundred and fifty-nine positions are open, with no designated occupant in sight.

But a slow start is not an automatic indicator of a presidency's trajectory, according to historians and other experts. The media judged Dwight Eisenhower’s first months to be halting, for instance. Abraham Lincoln’s start was kind of chaotic, what with secession and the beginning of the Civil War.

The early days can indeed set a tone for an administration going forward. But new presidents and their aides would do well to resist the hundred days myth and its temptation to amass a list of easy accomplishments to roll out for the media at the beginning of May, according to historian David Greenberg.

“Instead they should prioritize key, substantial issues,” he writes.

A more deliberate approach

And perhaps they should plan to move slowly. In some ways, the emphasis on “hundred days” sprints may not serve a new president’s best interests.

That is what Lara Brown, interim director of the George Washington University School of Political Management, argues. She says that one of the side effects of moving quickly to identify an agenda is that it gives something for political opponents to rally against.

“They are essentially helping their opposition unify against them,” Dr. Brown says.

Thus, following President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, demoralized Democrats came together against his announced plan to privatize Social Security. Following President Obama’s 2008 win, the GOP rallied to oppose health care reform.

Bush’s Social Security plan did not pass. Obamacare, of course, is now on the precipice of repeal.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama might have done better to follow the example of John Kennedy, says Brown. JFK moved incredibly slowly at a time when Congress and the nation were politically split, meeting with opponents, seeing what could pass and what could not, and developing a legislative agenda that was picked up and ultimately shepherded into law by Lyndon Johnson.

Such an approach would reflect the belief that “politics is actually about the slow process of incremental change, building coalitions and consensus to move policies and laws forward that will not only chalk up party wins but create a lasting legacy,” says Brown.

In that context, she says Trump should focus on criminal justice reform, and on developing legislation that would combine corporate tax reform with money to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Both might draw bipartisan support.

“The country is really tired of show horses. The voters want work horses,” Brown says.

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