How history punishes every new president
After 100 days in office, President Trump is off to one of the weakest starts in presidential history. His big initiatives are going nowhere and he’s less popular than any president in the modern era.
But his inability to deliver on key campaign promises, or win over a skeptical public, is actually part of a historical norm that has haunted every president since the Roosevelt White House first implemented the First 100 Days marker way back in 1933 as a means to reassure Americans suffering through the Great Depression.
It turns out that every president in the modern era: Trump, Obama and all the rest, walk into the White House unprepared for the massive task at hand.
“One of the things that I think is hard for everyone is the idea that what works well in campaigning rarely transitions to governing,” Terry Sullivan, Executive Director of the White House Transition Project, told GOOD.
Sullivan’s non-partisan organization has spent the last two decades helping new administrations cut through the red tape and newbie mistakes that so often bring new presidencies to a screeching halt. “There just isn’t anything that’s akin to what it’s like to be president,” he said.
In other words, as Trump recently complained, being president is incredibly hard.
It’s a massive challenge even for someone like George W. Bush, whose own father was president. Or Barack Obama, who seemingly had the entire world rooting for him in the aftermath of Bush’s failed presidency.
According to Sullivan, presidents typically struggle through their entire first year in office, not just the first 100 days.
He said that’s because after a successful election, most new administrations assume they have the mechanics of governing figured out. But the federal government is a massive labyrinth of bureaucracy, laws and infighting that often becomes fiercer than the already massive ideological divide between the two parties.
For example, Sullivan says President Obama oversaw the most successful presidential transition in modern history. But even by that measure, the definition of “success” is grim: Out of the 1,100 administration jobs requiring confirmation, Obama had 350 filled at the end of his first year.
“It’s not a very good record and that is the record. We’re an exceptionally slow democracy to get up and running,” Sullivan said. “That’s a big problem in terms of making policy, responding, reacting and realizing democratic choice.”
And after more than a year of listening to the candidate brag on the campaign trail about what a great job they’re going to do, the public is rarely forgiving of a president learning on the job.
It’s true that Trump’s poll numbers are historically bad. But even that is subjective to some degree. For example, George W. Bush’s poll numbers were steadily declining through his first year in office right up until September 11, 2001. In fact, less than nine months in, many were already assuming he would be a weak, one-term president. Bill Clinton fared even worse. By May of 1993, his approval was down to 44 percent and all the way down to 41 percent by July, right on par with Trump. And Ronald Reagan, widely considered one of the most popular presidents ever, spent most of his first term with approval ratings below 50 percent. By the time his re-election campaign started in 1984, Reagan was trailing Democrat Walter Mondale by double digits before experiencing a remarkable turnaround and cruising to victory.
There are things President Trump could do right now to become a more popular president: build bipartisan consensus on issues like immigration, infrastructure spending and improving the economy.
But if history is any indicator, his first 100 days in office are going to be a preview of his first year in office: a chaotic mess being orchestrated by a president and an administration in way over their heads.
That’s good news and bad news for both his supporters and critics alike. For, while it doesn’t mean Trump can’t turn things around and become both a successful and popular president at some point, for now, things are likely to only continue getting worse.