For example, he has signed more Executive Orders (for which he criticized President Obama) than any Administration during the same time since WWII. The most famous of these – on immigration and sanctuary cities – have been blocked by the courts; others include pulling out of the TPP, ordering reviews of government regulations, and the most recent calling for a review of national monument (parks) designations. This appears to be a lot of activity, but one could argue not much action.
The real action has to happen legislatively and here even with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, there has been no progress. According to the Financial Times (April 29/30) White House strategic advisor Steve Bannon explains that “Moving a big piece of legislation is the equivalent of landing on Normandy for D-Day,” meaning everything has to come together in a massive way at just the right time. While he’s right, critics are holding Trump to the standard he himself set. He has not been able to get any of his top ten legislative priorities passed. His approval rating is at an all-time low (41 % according to an April 26 CBS poll). Nevertheless, his supporters continue to believe he is doing the best he can and forgive him for what he can’t.
As Public Affairs practitioners, what can we add to our understanding of President Trump’s actions during the first 100 days?
- First, whether one is for or against the results, he looks like a President who is learning on the job. He himself admits it when he says he didn’t realize healthcare was so complex. He is willing to change his mind, to appear to be strong yet flexible. While this is refreshing and all Presidents to some extent learn on the job, one wonders whether this President knows what he doesn’t know. Being at the helm of a supership like the United States requires a certain amount of consistency that we don’t see in the daily twists and turns of decisions coming from this White House. Even the President’s own Cabinet can’t keep up with him as we saw with this week’s announcement of major tax reform, which seems to have taken everyone by surprise.
- Second, he is surrounded by key advisors without prior government experience who are also learning on the job and who don’t have the personnel infrastructure in place to advise them. Nomination and Senate confirmation of the top jobs has been especially slow compared to past Presidents. Of the top jobs in the government that require Senate confirmation.
- 26 have been approved; 37 are waiting; and 530 are vacant. Foreign diplomats complain that they have no U.S. Government to work with because the key positions below Secretary (Minister) have not been filled.
- Third, we don’t really know who is in charge in the White House. Washington is obsessed with politics inside the White House. The turf war to influence policy is played out between the populist/nationalist ideologues led by Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus aligned against the pragmatic/globalists led by Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and now chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. Meanwhile, the President is his own one -man show. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne describes him, Trump is a “… genius at evasion, diversion and prevarication.” (Post, 4/27/17)
- Fourth, and finally, what do we make of the changes in policy, the reversal of position, and promises deferred? Are these clever negotiating tactics? An effort to keep adversaries guessing? Genuine re-thinking of strategy? Possibly. At a rally before thousands of supporters on April 29, he explained one of those reversals: would you, he said, bash China on currency manipulation while you’re trying to get President Xi to work with the U.S. on North Korea? Come on!” Even a critic has to grant him this is the right priority.
Here’s what we do know: there is so much that is new about how this President and this White House work that no one has a magic key to unlock its mysteries. The media should play their part by getting “the best obtainable version of the truth,” according to journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. Think Tanks, academicians, and historians should play their part by reminding us of the rules governing politics in this democracy and how past Presidents have played by, enlarged or changed those rules.
Public Affairs practitioners have a special perspective because our expertise is the socio-political environment, the stakeholders that make up that environment, and the tools needed to engage with them to deliver beneficial outcomes for our organizations and for society. The current chaotic political environment gives us a unique opportunity to demonstrate that public affairs is a strategic function that can help make some sense of this chaos.