The tradition of measuring a new presidency's success in the first 100 days began after Franklin Delano Roosevelt set a high bar in 1933 with a string of big accomplishments at the beginning of his first term. That was an unusual moment in American history — a desperate electorate mired the depths of the Great Depression had elected FDR in a landslide and given him compliant Democratic majorities in Congress. So, judging subsequent presidents by that standard is a bit unfair.
Plus, the 100-day marker is no predictor of long-term success. Barack Obama had a strong opening to his years in the White House, but once Republicans organized themselves into the party that always said "no," Obama's initiatives hit a wall in Congress through the rest of his two terms.
Obama's impressive opening act was facilitated by his party's control of both the House and Senate. Donald Trump enjoys that same advantage now, but other than getting conservative judge Neil Gorsuch appointed to the Supreme Court, Republican rule has not been much of a boon. This is due to two things: the deep philosophical divide in the House GOP caucus and the amateurish chaos in the White House that reflects the pandemonium in the president's own mind.
Trump has a legislative agenda that has not grown much beyond the inflammatory rhetoric of his campaign — "Build a wall! Repeal Obamacare!" When House Republicans came up with a doomed scheme to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, Trump's attempts to sell the deal only exposed his near-complete ignorance of the legislation's details.
With no bragging rights to legislative accomplishments, Trump has had to fall back on the flurry of executive orders he has issued. Though his most noted executive action — the so-called "Muslim ban" — has been blocked by the courts, his unilateral orders are not inconsequential. Most have been directed at the federal bureaucracy and at environmental regulations. Coupled with appointments of Cabinet secretaries who seem intent on neutering their own departments and agencies, these measures are the real hallmark of Trump's opening months in office.
Trump has abandoned the leading role the United States has taken on battling the perils of climate change and begun dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. He is hollowing out the ranks of seasoned experts in the State Department. He is shifting the focus of the government away from protecting consumers, conserving pristine landscapes, aiding the poor and checking the worst impulses of financiers, bankers, frackers and polluters. Instead, his administration is moving quickly to cater to the interests of the fossil fuel industry, big corporations and Wall Street. His words may sound populist, but his actions show his intention is to serve the plutocrats.
Perhaps Trump's biggest accomplishment in his first 100 days has been his ability to capture the constant attention of the country and the world. Liberals are drinking more heavily and watching endless hours of Rachel Maddow to deal with their stress and anxiety. Conservatives are locked in arguments with each other about whether Trump is the answer to their dreams or a nightmare for the Republican Party. Overseas allies are appalled and perplexed by Trump's erratic nature while potential enemies cannot decide whether he is an ill-informed, easily manipulated novice or a belligerent, unpredictable adversary. The news media is simply obsessed with everything the man does. Cable news networks, in particular, seem to believe there is no other story worth covering.
By conventional standards, Trump has accomplished very little in his first 100 days, but, in the surreal new world of American politics, it feels as if he has changed everything overnight.
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