While President Trump has derided the idea of the “First 100 Days” scorecard, during the campaign he conveniently provided us with a measure by which to judge him in his “Contract with the American Voter”. When judged by his own expectations, Donald Trump is woefully failing.
To be fair to him though, with no experience in politics himself, and few around him during the campaign with a real understanding of government, it is no great surprise that he has been stymied by the restraints of governing and is not achieving his hoped-for goals. When combined with domestic and international constraints, as well as his personality, these restrictions are arguably greater than those for most of his predecessors.
So, what has Trump achieved in the three areas he identified as objectives?
Draining the Swamp
Candidate Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington – to clean up corruption and special interest collusion. He has taken a couple of steps in this direction. He has mandated all White House staff pledge to not lobby for five years after leaving office and to never lobby for a foreign government (although it is not clear how this will be enforced). And he instituted a hiring freeze across much of government, although this too is patchy.
On the other hand, Trump has also taken a few steps backwards on this issue. He hired heavily from the banking industry, in particular Goldman Sachs, and his cabinet is the wealthiest (and least experienced in government) in recorded history. He could be accused of nepotism, having brought both his daughter and son-in-law into the White House. And finally, his unwillingness (and that of his children) to distance himself from his business interests raises significant concerns.
Protecting the American People
Trump has followed through on some of his pledges to protect the American worker, from pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to taking initial steps for the renegotiation of Nafta. He has reversed many of President Obama’s environmental initiatives, including reversing his rejection of the Keystone Pipeline, as a way to boost domestic energy markets through promoting reinvestment in coal and other energy infrastructure. And he has made much of the decision by some businesses to retain jobs in the US (which scored well with his base but has had little impact).
However, here too the reality is rather less than it might appear. Some limited numbers of workers will clearly benefit as their jobs stay in the US, but as more than 85 per cent of American manufacturing jobs are being lost through technological innovation rather than to trade, this will be in the margins. Meanwhile, it’s too early to tell how Nafta negotiations will play out. Chinese President Xi came and went with no mention of currency manipulation or meaningful progress on some of the economic issues of most concern (e.g. lowering trade and investment barriers and removing subsidies). And, there has been no progress at all on increasing investment in infrastructure.
Perhaps of even greater consequence, Trump is working hard to defund a number of elements of the social safety net. His pledge to reform Obamacare (which has thus far failed), if successful, would likely mean fewer Americans have insurance rather than more. There has been no real progress on education reform. And the basics of his tax reform package appear to advantage the wealthy rather more than those in lower income brackets.
Restoring Security and the Constitutional Rule of Law
Arguably, one of Trump’s major successes thus far has been the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch. He also looks to be making progress on increasing funding for the military. On other issues however, he has again fallen short.
President Trump has failed on two attempts to put in place new restrictions for foreigners coming to the United States from a number of Muslim-majority countries, stymied in both cases by the judiciary. The courts have also stopped his attempts to cut off federal funding from sanctuary cities as he had pledged. Congress (including those in his own party) is currently stopping him from committing funds to build a wall with Mexico, and the Mexicans have, predictably, also refused to fund it.
Whether by his own standards set during the campaign, or by the standards of his predecessors, it is hard to see how Trump’s first 100 days could be defined as a success. He has achieved no legislation and his executive orders mostly focus on stopping Obama’s initiatives rather than launching any of his own.
This should come as no surprise. As Chatham House laid out in its January report, America’s International Role under Donald Trump, this president is heavily constrained by domestic and international factors as well as his personality. This has been made worse by the huge staffing gaps and lack of government experience of many of those already in place. While his staff will in time learn how government works, many of the restraints will remain and so, while he may have more success in future, his more extreme initiatives will continue to be constrained by the checks and balances of the US system.
Xenia Wickett is the head of the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House