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Donald Trump’s first two days of presidency saw an ominous backdrop of protests.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Now that the ultimate outsider has been transformed into an insider, now that the unforgiving critic of the American government is running the American government, now that the sworn enemy of official Washington is the principal official in Washington, the hard work begins.

The first two-and-a-half days were relatively easy. There were a series of celebratory formal balls, a visit to the headquarters of the CIA, the intelligence agency whose work the new President has ridiculed, and a multifaith prayer service that included Koranic verses celebrating diversity and an evangelical minister's prayer for "wisdom and grace." But the backdrop – huge worldwide women's protest marches – provided hints of the difficulties President Donald Trump and his new administration will face when they get down to work Monday

Both literally and figuratively, however, that administration is not yet fully formed. Only two cabinet members have been confirmed and many top appointments remain to be made. And a government that speaks of national discipline but is led by a man who defies discipline – and is filled with officials whose views diverge from the President's – has the potential to lurch in many directions at once, or to do very little at all.

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Read more: Key moments from Trump's inaugural address, annotated

Every indication is that the new President intends to veer to the right, but already there are indications that things could go very wrong for Mr. Trump, as they have for many presidential predecessors who had big plans for their first hundred days only to find them turn to dross.

On paper, Mr. Trump has the whip hand in Washington. His Republicans have a small but sufficient majority in the Senate and a comfortable margin in the House. Barack Obama and his party had control of the White House and both chambers on Capitol Hill for two of his eight years, George W. Bush for four of his eight. Ordinarily that is an immense advantage; Mr. Obama used it to win his health-care overhaul, Mr. Bush to keep the pressure on Iraq.

But complete control of the power tillers of Washington doesn't always mean smooth sailing for a president who reaches the facile conclusion that he thus is at the helm of the capital; the weekend marches reminded him that his country is divided, bitterly and vocally. The usual limitations on a president are especially relevant for a chief executive who, like Mr. Trump, scores an unfavourable rating from 48 per cent of the country, according to this month's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. That is exactly three times higher than the 16-per-cent unfavourable rating that Bill Clinton recorded in the same poll when he came into office in 1993.

With big plans and high hopes – and no massive protest marches 24 hours after he took the oath of office – Mr. Clinton looked hopefully and confidently up Pennsylvania Avenue toward a Democratic Congress for the first two years of his administration, only to watch his effort to win a health-care overhaul drown in defeat. Lyndon Johnson's entire five years in the White House were spent with Democrats running Congress and his one-time allies on Capitol Hill gave him heartburn over the Vietnam War, the economy and civil rights. (He would not have won approval of his signature Civil Rights Act in 1964, nor his cherished Voting Rights Act a year later, without substantial Republican support; many of his fellow Southern Democrats, devout segregationists, opposed him with vigour and vitriol.)

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Mr. Trump's power is not entirely dependent upon congressional support, as his two opening moves prove. In his first hours in office he overturned an Obama plan, aimed at low-income and first-time homeowners, to reduce mortgage fees and, in his preliminary attack on Obamacare, ordered steps to limit the health-care law's "economic and regulatory burdens," a manoeuvre to stop enforcing penalties on Americans who don't buy health insurance.

"The biggest challenge Trump will have is how to deal with Obamacare and how he and the Republicans do that will absolutely be an issue in the midterm elections," said Daniel Béland, a political sociologist at the University of Saskatchewan. "They don't have much time to realize their goals." But they do have flexibility that earlier presidents did not possess. The great irony of contemporary Washington is that Mr. Obama's extensive use of executive orders, criticized bitterly by Republicans until his final day in office Friday, in fact now opens the way for Mr. Trump to be equally inventive, and equally forceful, in acting without congressional approval.

That may be helpful, as the new President's alliances on Capitol Hill are fragile and were not enhanced by his frontal attack in his combative inaugural address, on "politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it." These inaugural comments were made within metres of the very lawmakers he was criticizing.

One of those who shared the podium on the West Front of the Capitol building on Inauguration Day with the congressional leaders Mr. Trump excoriated was former president Jimmy Carter, who occupied the White House from 1977 to 1981, while the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

That power surge in effect left the outsider president powerless, as his putative allies on Capitol Hill knew the power levers better than he did, guarded their prerogatives jealously and showed little respect, and almost no deference, to the president.

In the event, House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts ridiculed Hamilton Jordan, the president's chief of staff, and referred to him as "Hamilton Jerkin." Democratic congressional leaders paid little mind to White House directives or requests. A sitting Democratic senator, Edward Kennedy, also of Massachusetts, mounted a campaign to deny Mr. Carter nomination for a second term and, at the party's New York nomination convention, dominated the talk – and the stage. In all, Mr. Trump may talk tough but acting tough will be difficult – the very conundrum that exposed the Washington political class to his withering criticism on the inaugural podium.

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"He was clearly addressing a constituency dissatisfied by the Democrats and either forgotten or taken for granted by the Republicans," said Gladden Pappin, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "His alliance with them is something Trump can build on. He enjoyed less of a honeymoon than previous presidents-elect, especially Mr. Obama, have had. He's aiming for a cross-partisan credibility, but it will take a lot to achieve."

The struggle to achieve that will be the story of the new President's first two years – and, fatefully, of the midterm congressional elections, only 22 months away.

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