Rather than simply declaring the hundred days either a success or a failure and then moving on, it is perhaps more appropriate to take the opportunity to review what we have learned about the new president since January 20. Trump is an especially apt subject for examination in this way. He came into the office without the experience or political style of a normal national leader, and his election generated a wide range of expectations across partisan and ideological lines about what kind of president he would turn out to be.
It's safe to say at this point that Trump is not the political savant envisioned by some of his supporters, and even by members of the press corps who were impressed by his unlikely election. Despite his promises to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump has not shown the ability to resolve the nation's most pressing problems via a unique combination of negotiating savvy and tough-minded dedication. One insider account after another portrays the president as totally at sea in the White House, with top members of Trump's own staff privately conceding that he lacks an elementary grasp of either policy or congressional politics. Previous suggestions that he would assemble an all-star team of "the best people" to provide assistance and advice have similarly been discarded in favor of the installation of a skeleton crew of professional partisans and assorted personal loyalists, who seem to spend as much energy jockeying for presidential favor and trashing each other in the press as they do carrying out the tasks of governing.
At the same time, much of the criticism directed toward Trump from the left prior to Inauguration Day has also not been borne out by his performance in office. Warnings that Trump's ascendance to power signaled a potential threat to democracy itself were commonplace among left-of-center analysts during the campaign and transition period. But one regular attempt to catalog worrying signs of impending authoritarianism has come to seem self-refuting, unless such items as "13. Trump dropped his campaign promise to let Medicare negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs" and "5. Trump hosted a disastrous Easter Egg Roll" indeed contain sinister echoes of Franco and Mussolini. (Also: the Easter Egg Roll was not actually disastrous, even if Beyoncé didn't show up this year.)
The Trump presidency has been more conventionally Republican than advertised—largely abandoning the departures from traditional conservative doctrine that gave the Trump candidacy a tinge of economic populism—and has proven less effective so far in achieving major change than either supporters or (most) opponents assumed. Rather than consolidating executive power to rearrange the international order, dissuade corporate America from outsourcing jobs, or oppress and intimidate political enemies, the new president has devoted much of his attention to monitoring daily television coverage of his administration and idly complaining about its perceived unfairness. Decisions about legislative business and other substantive matters are often delegated to subordinates or avoided altogether.
When combined with a divided congressional majority—and unified minority—this adds up to an administration characterized by significant political and institutional limitations. Trump's personal defensiveness and penchant for boastful exaggeration, traits that have been adopted by members of his White House staff, project insecurity more than calm command and arise in private meetings with other political leaders as well as public communications. Despite an unusual preoccupation with his personal popularity, the new president has yet to convince a majority of citizens to approve of his job performance at any point since taking office, further reducing his influence over Congress and encouraging critical assessments from members of the news media who would otherwise defer to Trump as an authentic voice for the concerns of middle America.
Presidents, and presidencies, can and do evolve over time. It's premature to draw anything more than tenuous conclusions about the governing style and capacity of the new administration just three months into its existence. On the other hand, media observers have been hyper-sensitive to any signs of a more knowledgeable, even-tempered, or "presidential" Trump ever since he started his campaign 21 months ago, but have so far only sounded what turned out to be false alarms. Trump may indeed change his ways in the future. So far, however, there's little reason to expect the next hundred days to be much different from the first.
Finally, it's time for some personal stock-taking. Last January, I was asked by the Boston College public affairs office, along with a number of academic colleagues across several disciplines, to share brief remarks about Trump's first hundred days. Here's what I wrote:
There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the Trump administration will operate in practice. Compared to previous administrations, the incoming president’s policy priorities are not well defined and the lines of decision-making authority within the White House remain unclear. Because the new president and vice president, most senior presidential advisors (including the new White House chief of staff), and much of the cabinet all lack substantial experience in the executive branch, the early months of the Trump administration will produce an elevated risk of ineffectiveness, substantive and procedural confusion, and potentially serious errors in governing.
It is already clear from both the 2016 campaign and the post-election transition period that the new president places great importance on receiving positive press coverage, identifying and citing indicators of personal popularity, and exacting revenge against perceived enemies. These are likely to be the major day-to-day objectives of his administration – absent an immediate crisis that directs attention elsewhere – and presidential decisions about policy and personnel may well be viewed primarily through their ability to further one or more of these goals.
I'd still stand behind these words. But I am struck in retrospect by the lack of energy that Trump has devoted to using the presidential bully pulpit to mobilize popular support and pressure political opponents (of both parties), and by his limited success in finding creative and politically useful ways to attract public attention. The deficiencies so far of Trump-the-policy-maker are, to me, hardly a shock. It's Trump-the-media-tactician whose ineffectiveness is one of the most surprising developments of the first hundred days.