Trump’s 100th

What We Learn From Trump’s First Hundred

By Gerald F. Seib
Updated April 27, 2017

As the Trump presidency’s 100-day mark arrives, here’s a little secret: That opening stretch often is a rocky one for new presidents.

Bill Clinton suffered through a botched economic-stimulus package, a controversy over gays in the military and a White House travel-office scandal. George H.W. Bush made what turned out to be a disastrous pick for defense secretary.

If you reach back further, John Kennedy made a historic blunder by approving the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, a failure that continued to haunt him.

President Donald Trump’s journey through 100 days has been notably messy, of course. His most important legislative effort, on health care, collapsed at the hands of members of his own party, while a travel ban on select Muslim-majority countries stalled in the courts. His national-security adviser was fired in a controversy over contacts with Russian officials. He leveled an unsubstantiated accusation that his predecessor tapped his phones. He set a record for early job disapproval.

Yet he has been more effective on other fronts. With less notice, he has begun a broad rollback of regulations, in part through use of a long-dormant law that allows elimination of past regulatory directives, to the cheers of the business community. His team got a respected Supreme Court nominee through the Senate. Ditching campaign-season impulses, he launched a strike at Syria over its use of chemical weapons, and built what seems to be a solid relationship with China’s president.

So the debate is on over what Mr. Trump has and hasn’t done at the much-hyped 100-day milestone. But history suggests that the precise balance sheet at 100 days means less than what has been learned about how a new president operates—and what kinds of adjustments he makes based on those opening lessons.

Ronald Reagan used his opening 100 days to build an effective legislative coalition of fellow Republicans and conservative Democrats. That coalition implemented his broad agenda in his first year—and then was useful the following year when he needed to roll back some of his signature tax cuts to shrink the deficit. He also began learning that allowing multiple, competing power centers inside his White House wouldn’t work.

Mr. Kennedy learned not to put unquestioned trust in military leaders and to put stock in his own instincts. That proved useful in guiding him through the Cuban missile crisis that came later.

Mr. Clinton learned he needed to impose more order on his personal and political world. He did, and ended up overseeing a prospering economy and largely successful presidency—although that lack of personal discipline returned to haunt him in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Those early lessons are the ones that proved prescient in the past. So the important question at this point may be less what did or didn’t happen in Mr. Trump’s first 100 days, but what we know about the new presidency—and what lessons the president might walk away with himself.

We know that Mr. Trump is a restless activist who doesn’t abide by the rules, for better and for worse. His presidency will never be quiet. The risk for him now is that the volume and looseness of his running commentary will undermine his ability to communicate effectively, at home and abroad, when it’s urgent to do so.

Yet we also know he can curb his impulses, if he really wants to. He has gone stretches without indulging in his Twitter addiction. He can lean toward more of a conventional style when he wants to. He bashes the press yet also is open to it in a way few of his predecessors were.

Perhaps more important, he has allowed a cadre of more conventional advisers—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, economic adviser Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin —to accumulate increasing influence. Whether that continues is a key indicator for the next 100 days.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Trump is hitting the 100-day mark without a clear governing coalition. Republicans’ control of the White House and both houses of Congress created an expectation that getting things done might be easy, but the early failure on the Obamacare repeal showed that he can’t count on support from his party’s most conservative wing.

At the same time, he hasn’t managed to win meaningful Democratic support, outside of cheers for the Syria strike. The polarizing effect of his opening days has made that task tougher; Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez, in his own 100-days message, called on Democrats “to keep resisting for the next hundred, and the hundred after that, and on until Donald Trump is out of office for good.”

The foremost presidential challenge​ for the next hundred days and beyond is to get Washington beyond the dangers of paralyzing polarization.​

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

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