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Political scientist: First 100 days a ‘pretty meaningless benchmark’

Saturday is President Donald J. Trump's 100th day in office, though political science professor William Mayer says the benchmark doesn't hold much weight. Photo via Flickr.
William G. Mayer Associate Professor of Political Science See More
Saturday will be President Donald J. Trump’s 100th day in office, a milestone that’s long been held up as an indicator of how successful a new presidential administration can be. According to political science professor William Mayer, Trump’s first three months in office have been a mixed bag. As a political newcomer, he said, Trump faces different challenges in Congress, but he’s been roughly as successful as many of his predecessors.

Perhaps the bigger question: How significant are the first 100 days of a new administration? And to that, Mayer said, “I think 100 days are a pretty meaningless benchmark, especially for a political newcomer like Donald Trump.”

What has been President Trump’s biggest victory in his first 100 days? What’s been his biggest shortcoming?

His biggest victory was the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and his biggest defeat was either the failure to enact healthcare legislation as rapidly as he’d hoped or the fact that two of his executive orders were held up by courts.

How do President Trump’s first 100 days compare with his recent predecessors’? And how do they compare to presidents whose parties have similarly held both houses of Congress upon their inauguration, such as former President Bill Clinton in 1993 or former President Jimmy Carter in 1977?

It’s fair to say that all presidents have discovered that even with majorities in both houses of Congress, things are slow to get enacted.

When Clinton took office, he passed his “Motor Voter” bill fairly quickly, and took great pains to announce that the gridlock in Washington was over. Then, however, he tried to pass his budget, and that took months and months, and even then just barely snaked through Congress.

The bottom line is it’s always a little easier to play defense than offense in Washington, and that’s not just a criticism of contemporary Republicans; surely it’s true of Democrats as well.

This president may face it a little more significantly than some just because he’s not familiar with the issues. If Republicans had elected someone a little more knowledgeable on the issues, that person might have been able to put together a decent package on healthcare. So Trump is maybe doing a little worse than usual, but for most presidents who take office with majorities in both houses, those majorities are a bit misleading.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump said of the first 100 days, “It’s an artificial barrier. It’s not very meaningful.” Given the massive undertaking required to fully staff any new administration and the occasional inertia in Congress, would you agree?

Most political scientists would tell you the whole 100 days mania is dramatically misplaced.  Franklin D. Roosevelt got a lot done in his 100 days, but he took office during a national emergency and at a time when Congress was a little more willing to go along with anything that had some prospect of reviving the economy.

I can’t think of any other president that’s gotten a lot done in his first 100 days—in fact, probably the most successful president of the past 50 years was Ronald Reagan, and he got virtually nothing done in first 100 days besides surviving an assassination attempt.

It is fair to say that presidents are often at their most effective at getting stuff done in the first year and half of their presidency, so Trump has to get some things on their way to passage soon. Otherwise, though, I think 100 days are a pretty meaningless benchmark, especially for a political newcomer like Trump.

It’s been widely reported that Trump entered office to a record-low approval rating, a potential handicap to the wave of political capital that new presidents typically enjoy after inauguration. To what extent does public opinion affect what can be accomplished in a president’s first 100 days?

The evidence shows that having a good approval rating has, at best, a rather weak effect on a president’s success with Congress. I can’t think of a situation yet where it would have mattered for this president. Would he have gotten healthcare through if he were more popular? Maybe, but I doubt it.

What might we expect from the remainder of Trump’s first year in office?

What he will want to do is score a couple big successes, and my guess is that Republicans will go back to the drawing board and put together some kind of healthcare package—whether that package is seen as a good one is a different story, but they’ll create something that will at least pass the House of Representatives.

Additionally, if managed correctly, Trump should be able to get something done on tax reform, but we don’t know about his capacity to manage issues. He’s never had to work with a body quite as recalcitrant as the American Congress.

I think the border wall will go through in some form or another, though Trump can get a lot done in that vein by just enforcing existing laws.

We’ll see if things get better as the year goes on, but Trump has to get at least a couple successes under his belt to make it appear as if he’s having a good presidency. He can’t rely solely on executive orders.

Another factor is that there’s been at least some talk that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy would resign at end of the current session, and that would unleash a fracas. If Trump were able to get another nominee on the court, that would be a huge victory for him and his party.

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