Dr Emily Charnock, Lecturer in American History, delivers her verdict as the Trump presidency reaches its first major milestone.

The idea of the 'First 100 days' as a benchmark of presidential success dates back to the early months of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in 1933. Roosevelt, as with much in presidential history, set the bar high.

Emily Charnock

“I don't think that there is a presidential period of time in the first 100 days where anyone has done nearly what we've been able to do.” So declared President Donald J. Trump in a recent interview, offering a characteristically bold interpretation of American history.

Since his inauguration on 20 January, Trump has certainly been active. On the international scene, he has played nice with Vladimir Putin, fallen out with Vladimir Putin, bombed Syria, and sent the US Navy to rattle North Korea. He’s wined and dined the Chinese president, overcome his germaphobia long enough to hold hands with British Prime Minister Theresa May (while refusing to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s), and variously attacked and embraced NATO.

At home, he has struck a defiant tone – against the media, Meryl Streep, assorted nay-sayers, and his own intelligence agencies. He has played musical chairs with his advisors in the West Wing, and accused his predecessor of wiretapping him. Amid the sturm und drang he has managed to get a Supreme Court nominee approved, but his much-vaunted healthcare proposal was dramatically shelved when support failed to materialize, and his travel bans targeting Muslims have been suspended by the courts.

Perhaps his rollback of Obama-era environmental protections amounts to the biggest formal change thus far, but as a new executive order undoing older ones, it required only the stroke of a pen. He signed another order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but NAFTA still stands. And there are not, as yet, any bricks in the border wall. In sum, in substantive terms, Trump’s administration has not done nearly as much as he claims, or promised.

The idea of the “First 100 days” as a benchmark of presidential success dates back to the early months of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in 1933. And Roosevelt, as with much in presidential history, set the bar high. Amid the grave crisis of the Great Depression, and with a landslide electoral victory just behind him, Roosevelt promised “direct, vigorous action” to meet the economic emergency – and delivered.

With a potent combination of charisma aided by circumstance, he persuaded Congress (sitting in a special session lasting 100 days) to pass fifteen major pieces of legislation – restructuring major industries, regulating banking and finance, providing subsidies to farmers, and offering some relief to the unemployed and destitute. He explained these actions in “Fireside Chats” – using the new technology of radio to speak directly to citizens in their own homes, connecting president and populace in a new way. His plain speech and folksy manner served to revolutionise presidential rhetoric, and in the most laudatory accounts, transform the mood of the country too. From despair came determination and a new positive outlook, courtesy of Roosevelt’s winning personality and can-do attitude (never mind that the Depression itself didn’t lift for a decade).

No other president can match Roosevelt’s speedy legislative achievements, or the mythical aura that has grown up around his presidency. Most presidents rack up a success or two: Bill Clinton got his budget through in the first 100 days, Barack Obama signed the $800 billion stimulus into law, and George W. Bush’s tax relief plan was on its way to approval. But their most significant legislative accomplishments came later.

Even for Presidents who have gained their own mythic status, the First 100 Days weren’t always easy. John F. Kennedy’s start was marred by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Ronald Reagan faced, and survived, an assassination attempt in March 1981. Reagan’s demeanour in adversity, though (he quipped that he hoped all his doctors were Republicans), sent his approval ratings sky high – helping him pass a major economic recovery programme, and laying the foundation for his later tax and budget cuts.

Trump has presented outlines of his budget and proposed tax reforms, but Congress still needs to take action. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan has twice pulled votes on healthcare reform, and Trump is yet to affix his signature to a major law.

And then there’s that FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, lurking in the background but threatening to upend his administration altogether. With all thatin mind, Trump’s claims of extraordinary action and achievement undoubtedly fall short. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Trump has responded to a spate of negative “100 days” assessments by turning on a dime, and now pronouncing this benchmark to be “an artificial barrier” that isn’t “very meaningful.”

Of course, all politicians over-promise and under-deliver, but for a president who defined himself in opposition to typical politicians, this is a dangerous game. His job approval rating in the Gallup poll stands at 41% on average for the first quarter of 2017 – the lowest accorded a new President since polling began, and the first below 50%. And yet, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that Trump voters aren’t displaying any “buyer’s remorse.”

For now, his supporters are still willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. In this, the pragmatic side of Trump’s political persona may be working to his advantage – his claims to be a “dealmaker” providing some cover when backing away from his more strident stances. But his deals need to bear fruit, and soon.

In mid-April, the White House Instagram account captioned an image “#ICYMI President Donald J. Trump is continuing to Make America Great Again!” “ICYMI” – text-speak for “In Case You Missed It” – was apt. For all the bombast, any return to “greatness” as Trump sees it, has indeed been easy to miss. The mood of the country has not been transformed (Trump’s Twitter musings have not proven to be the new “Fireside Chat”).

The United States remains a deeply polarized nation, where politics has become an ever-sharper scythe, defining and dividing friendships, families, communities and regions. Yet the sky has not fallen. American political and civic institutions have not collapsed, as some darkly predicted in November. Outrage has fuelled and followed him, the spectre of impeachment hovers over him, but as his first 100 days draws to a close, Trump may yet have a more successful second act. At the very least, it is unlikely to be dull.

Dr. Emily Charnock is a Lecturer in American History and a Fellow of Selwyn College

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