USA Politics

Many presidents have first year troubles. Trump is the same – and different.

Finding the patterns

Historians look at President Trump's first weeks and see a rough start. That can be overcome, they say. But Mr. Trump might judge success differently from any president in modern history. 

President Donald Trump calls on members of the press during a news conference Thursday in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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The top national security official was a problem from the beginning of the administration. The vice president didn’t trust him. He harangued the cabinet. Subordinates found him hard to work with. “Overbearing” seemed his middle name.

The upshot: He got ousted. Quickly. It was a key job and the White House needed someone more attuned to the president’s instincts and operating style.

Michael Flynn, the ex-general just dismissed as President Trump’s national security adviser? Nope. Al Haig, the ex-general who served as President Reagan’s secretary of State for a little more than a year.

“He just shouted too much,” remembered former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Ken Adelman in a 2003 oral history of the Reagan team. 

Many United States presidential administrations have early crises. Top appointments don’t work out and people need to be fired. Novice presidents stumble into policy decisions that turn out to be unforced errors. Disputes that should be handled internally play out in the press.

True, the Trump administration’s current dysfunctions seem particularly pronounced. It’s unprecedented that someone as high up as Mr. Flynn only lasted a few weeks. The first choice to replace him, retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned down the job Friday. Hundreds of second- and third-tier executive branch jobs are still unfilled. Supporters may have liked Trump’s Thursday press conference but critics thought it wildly disjointed and combative.

But other administrations didn’t always hum like well-oiled machines in their first year, either. Even politicians as skilled and experienced as Bill Clinton found the transition to the awesome responsibility of the presidency more difficult than they expected. It’s hard to occupy the position that used to be called “leader of the free world.”

When it takes office, each new administration must grapple with five aspects of presidential power, says William Antholis, director of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He calls them the “five Ps”: personnel, process, priorities, politics, and personal behavior.

“Almost every administration fails in each of these five at some point in its first year,” Professor Antholis says.

That means initial months can be filled with missteps.

Bungled first years: Carter to Clinton

President Jimmy Carter, for instance, took office with large majorities of his party in the House and Senate, as has President Trump. But Mr. Carter’s inability to connect with congressional leaders, in part due to staffers who expressed disdain for legislative leaders, stymied his agenda from his first months. Congress refused to go along with his proposed cuts to “pork barrel” spending projects. They rejected a Carter consumer protection bill and labor reform package.

The Reagan administration suffered from intense infighting in its top ranks during its first months. Secretary of State Haig – who famously and wrongly insisted that “I am in charge” following the assassination attempt on Reagan by John Hinckley – was not the only casualty. National Security Adviser Richard V. Allan was eased out after only 11 months, in part because he could not referee stronger personalities in Reagan’s security circle.

“While 1981 was not a wasted year, it was far less productive than Reagan probably hoped,” writes Duke University associate professor of public policy and history Hal Brands in a summary for the Miller Center’s “First Year” presidency project

Mr. Clinton’s first months were chaotic. His first two nominees for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both eventually withdrew due to revelations that they had employed undocumented immigrants as nannies. He became embroiled in controversy over his attempt to allow gays to serve in the military, ending in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise policy. His secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, proved to be too disorganized and not decisive enough to run the enormous business of the Pentagon. Mr. Aspin, a former member of Congress from Wisconsin and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, barely lasted a year in the job.

Other Clinton officials judged Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey stiff and difficult to work with. Eventually, Clinton tuned him out. When a light plane crashed on the White House grounds in 1994, some insiders joked that it was Mr. Woolsey trying to see the president.

“There just wasn’t a good personality fit between Woolsey and Clinton,” said Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel Berger in a 2005 oral history

In addition to these problems, almost every recent administration has had some sort of outside crisis within its first year, adding to transition troubles. These range from a coup attempt in Panama during President George H. W. Bush’s first months in office, leading to the dispatch of thousands of US troops, to the 9/11 terror attacks on American in the September of President George W. Bush’s initial year.

For Trump, what is success?

What does all this mean for the new Trump administration?

Going back to the five P’s of presidential power, it might mean getting personnel that work together as a team, instead of functioning as rival power centers. It could be ensuring there is a process where those people know what each other is doing.

Trump has laid out priorities in the past, but it is not clear he is hewing to them. That leads to the final P of personal action. Here is where Trump is unique: He’s fighting the press and the Washington establishment like no modern president before him, says Antholis. 

If his goal in the presidency is simply to win symbolic battles against the establishment, it’s possible he can achieve something that he might judge victory. While insiders in Washington are aghast at what they see as Trump’s loose relation with truth and his rambling rhetoric, his supporters remain happy. Trump retains the approval of 84 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, according to a just-released Pew poll. The GOP core is still solid Trump, despite steep declines among Democrats and independents.

However, if his goal is to tick off the boxes of his stated agenda, from repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act to tax reform and an infrastructure program, he’d better get going. The window for moving big things through Congress closes rapidly for all new presidents.

“As LBJ said, you get one year before Congress stops thinking about you and starts thinking about its own reelection,” says Antholis.

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