Skip to main content
david shribman

The hundred days, the standard that so bewitched President Donald J. Trump, is an artificial marker, a notion Franklin Roosevelt borrowed in Washington in 1933 from Napoleon Bonaparte's tragic return from Elba exile in 1815.

Mr. Trump is doing quite a bit better than Napoleon, whose hundred days included his defeat at Waterloo and ended with the restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne in Paris. But the President, who still hasn't won a major battle on Capitol Hill, did not do nearly as well as FDR, who won approval of more than a dozen major pieces of legislation in that period during the depths of the Great Depression.

Still, several important lessons about the 45th president and the modern American political scene have emerged from Mr. Trump's first one hundred days, which end Saturday. Here are some of them:

Political pugilism and political popularity do not go hand in hand after all in the new Washington

No president began his White House years with remotely the combativeness that Mr. Trump displayed in his early weeks. Convinced that his battling style won him the election and perhaps forgetting that he did not win a popular majority last November, Mr. Trump was reluctant to abandon the freewheeling, undisciplined manner that he displayed as a campaigner.

The late Mario M. Cuomo, who served as governor of New York for a dozen years, used to say that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Mr. Trump's campaign poetry sometimes resembled free-form verse, liberated from the conventions of the genre, and his governing prose has varied little from that. Though he made some headway with presidential orders on a few areas, including stripping business regulation, he has no achievements in Washington that approach even one of Roosevelt's early accomplishments, and his popularity is unimpressive by historical standards. Indeed, half of Americans have a negative view of him, according to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll released this week.

The President and Congress move to different rhythms, even in a time of great transition

Mr. Trump lacks patience, and Congress lacks urgency. But that is not all. Mr. Trump has a list of priorities that don't line up with those of his putative legislative allies in Capitol Hill, and the dissonance that resulted means that Congress and the President have not been productive.

Harry Truman described the legislative branch in 1948 as the "do-nothing Congress," a sobriquet that Mr. Trump, born in the Truman era, might well find alluring. The President was in a rush to overturn Obamacare. Congress balked, and only late this week has some progress been made – and only in the House, not the Senate. He is in a rush to push through a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code, but the "plan" he released this week is a one-page outline of priorities. Congress has not rushed to action.

The President has priorities; the Congress has processes

Even in a period of instant communication and breathless social and economic disruption, the cadence of Congress is slow. An institution shaped in the 18th century Enlightenment, it has its own hoary byways and folkways. It holds hearings. It summons experts to testify. It moves legislation through subcommittees and then through full committees and then, finally, stages deliberations on the floor of each chamber. Sometimes, particularly in the Senate, often described as the Cave of Winds, those deliberations can drone on for days, occasionally weeks.

The House and Senate seldom pass legislation in the same form. That means the House version and the Senate version must be reconciled, in a forum known as a joint House-Senate conference, and in that conference egos and competing priorities often clash. That produces further delays. Then the legislation must go back to each separate house for another vote. This is not a process congenial to a chief executive with a short attention span and an eagerness to produce swift results.

Right now, the President wants action on taxes, infrastructure and healthcare (again). Congress has its own focus. In the week leading up to the end of the hundred-day period, the President wanted to keep his momentum moving. Congress wanted to keep the government operating. The lawmakers were dealing with the threat of a federal shutdown as spending authority was about to expire. Thus, Washington witnessed the political equivalent of a climatic inversion. The President was preoccupied with grandstanding, and the Congress was preoccupied with governing. This is not the usual pattern.

Public sentiment is not going the President's way

The indications are small but telling. Until early this week, Mr. Trump was pushing Congress on his plan to erect a wall at the Mexican border. But there was resistance on Capitol Hill – or at least a sentiment that this initiative could wait – and finally the President capitulated, putting it off until perhaps autumn. At the same time, public sentiment about immigration was shifting. That Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll released this week showed that six of 10 Americans believe immigration is a benefit to the United States, an increase of six percentage points in nearly eight months. That does not conform to the Trump narrative.

Mr. Trump also continued his crusade against what he describes as unfair trading practices, even singling out Canadian dairy farmers last week and then initiating action on softwood lumber imports from Canada this week. For a day or so this week the President was committed to abandoning NAFTA. Then he took calls from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and agreed to renegotiate the trade pact instead, hoping to "make all three countries stronger and better." All this while, American domestic support for free trade, as measured in the Journal/NBC poll, is on the upswing. Now nearly three of five Americans believe it benefits the country.

Mr. Trump may be an unusual president, but his hundred-day performance is not so unusual

In his famous Inaugural Address of 1961, John F. Kennedy knew the perils of the hundred-day measure, and in his first half-hour as president sought to tamp down expectations. He set forth ambitious goals, including improving relations with the Soviet Union, ending Cold War suspicions, exploring the heavens and conquering disease. Then he added: "All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin." In the end, Mr. Kennedy's administration lasted only a thousand days. His first hundred days included the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, when an American-aided uprising failed to prevail in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Bill Clinton's first hundred days were no more impressive. They included contretemps over gays in the military and the failure of some of his appointees to pay taxes on their household employees.

Barack Obama did better, winning approval of an economic stimulus package and expanding a health-insurance program for children. But he was unwilling to be judged by that artificial deadline. "The first hundred days is going to be important," he said before he even was elected, "but it's probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference." That is one remark by his predecessor that Mr. Trump might wish he had uttered.

In fact, the next hundred days will almost certainly be more important for Mr. Trump

In a way, they very likely will be far more telling and far more significant than the preceding hundred. In this second period, the President and Congress actually may make some headway on healthcare, tax overhaul and perhaps an infrastructure initiative, the one element in the Trump legislative portfolio that Democrats will be eager to embrace.

All are en route, but not far enough along the tracks to be near their destination. Moreover, the next hundred days may give broader hints about Mr. Trump's approach to foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East and the escalating tensions with North Korea.

And yet, Mr. Trump has changed Washington

He has inserted his own selection for the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, and because high-court appointees serve for life, the relatively young Mr. Gorsuch (49 years old on a court where a third of the justices are 78 or older) will be a political force for decades. He demonized and marginalized House conservatives for weeks and then, in the past few days, corralled them into his corner, at least on health care – perhaps a signal that he can form a workable majority on Capitol Hill. And he has thrown the Democrats, accustomed to disarray, into deep despair and kept them there.

That may be a passel of achievements for most hundred-day periods, just not the first. But the first hundred days have a special allure, and what might be regarded as an impressive haul of achievements sometime in 2018 or 2019 falls short for the first hundred days in 2017, an assessment that the President's last-days frenzy seemed to confirm.

Mr. Trump likes to do things in a big way. Maybe he'll embrace that two-hundred-day standard and end the American preoccupation with the first hundred. That would change how Washington works and how Washington thinks. The second hundred days begin Sunday. Start counting.