Ronald Reagan learned from Carter’s mistakes. His transition team decided to focus on just a few major policy priorities. Reagan also used his considerable charm to court the Democratic speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, and the two Irish Americans developed a cordial relationship that saw them fight fierce legislative battles, yet meet regularly to share drinks and salty jokes at the end of the week. Reagan was also aided by a clearly articulated governing philosophy that was well understood by his team.
“The agenda of Ronald Reagan’s ‘First Hundred Days’ in office—indeed, in large measure, the agenda of the first year of his presidency—was defined by the promises of his 1980 election campaign. . . . [H]e repeatedly pledged to cut taxes, boost military spending, and balance the federal budget by reducing domestic spending,” Lou Cannon, Reagan’s biographer, writes in Triumphs & Tragedies. “Reagan’s running start was aided by a compilation (later called ‘the Holy Scrolls’) . . . of every policy statement that Reagan made during the campaign. New appointees were given copies of these statements and were told that they were the blueprints of administration policies.”
Such relationships as Reagan and Tip O’Neill established across the political aisle increasingly seem part of a bygone era, and that partisanship is another drag on a modern president’s first hundred days. Given the bitterness of the recent election campaign and its aftermath—which prompted more than fifty Democrats to boycott President Trump’s inauguration—plus Trump’s penchant for stirring up controversy 140 characters at a time, a bipartisan consensus on his major agenda items seems unlikely. In a similar fashion, congressional Republicans and party leaders gathered on the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration to formulate a strategy for opposing him at every turn. That dynamic of hyper-partisanship will make it all the more important for Trump to reach out early and often to Republican leaders in Congress to keep them united behind his agenda.
“Since partisan polarization in Congress has greatly increased over the past several decades, the success of future presidents during their first hundred days will increasingly depend on the partisan balance of Congress,” Pfiffner writes. “This polarization has resulted in much stronger party discipline in which the president’s party almost always supports presidential priorities, while the opposing party tries to thwart the president . . . [with] obstructionist parliamentary tactics.”
Picking the Cabinet
That obstructionism is likely to coalesce all the faster given the appointment of Cabinet officials best known for opposing and criticizing the agencies they may soon head. Oklahoma attorney general and climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt is Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, and he is perhaps best known nationally for suing the EPA. Likewise, former Texas governor Rick Perry has been chosen to lead the Energy Department, which he proposed abolishing as a presidential candidate. Then there are cabinet picks with potential ethical clouds hanging over their heads, such as Treasury Department nominee and former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin, who on his initial questionnaire to the Senate Finance Committee failed to disclose $100 million in personal assets, as well as his role as director of a hedge fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven. Pushing controversial Cabinet picks through Senate confirmation on party-line votes may cause Trump to expend political capital he may need in passing other parts of his agenda.
Pursuing controversial policies, such as rapidly repealing Obamacare while promising “insurance for everybody,” building a wall on the southern border paid for by Mexico and renegotiating trade agreements that underpin global free trade, will also force Trump to expend precious political capital early on in his tenure.
There are certainly historical precedents where such controversies slowed the momentum of a new administration trying to start strong out of the gates. George H. W. Bush became bogged down in his unsuccessful secretary of defense nomination of Texas senator John Tower, who was opposed by powerful Democrats such as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, because of Tower’s reputation for drinking and carousing. Bill Clinton’s nomination of Zoe Baird to be attorney general likewise became embroiled in the “Nannygate” controversy, forcing her withdrawal. Clinton also became enmeshed in an unwelcome controversy when his unsuccessful effort to eliminate the ban on gays serving openly in the military was opposed by powerful congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Barack Obama’s promise to close the Guántanamo Bay detention center within a year of his taking office was similarly thwarted by Congress.
In his ability connect with the raucous crowds that represent his base, Trump follows in the tradition of modern presidents who have mastered the bully pulpit of the White House, whether it was Barack Obama’s soaring oratory, Bill Clinton’s folksy “feel your pain” speeches, or the inspiring rhetoric and self-deprecating wit of former actor Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator.”
In his unprecedented use of Twitter, Trump has inhabited a new communications medium like no president since Franklin Roosevelt used radio and his “fireside chats” to connect directly with an anxious public, and the telegenic John F. Kennedy created the aura of “Camelot” at the dawn of the age of television. As a direct and unfiltered conduit to Trump the provocateur, however, Twitter has proven a double-edged medium. Trump’s frequent Twitter rants help explain why he will enter the Oval Office with the lowest approval rating of any modern American president, with some 48 percent of Americans viewing him in a negative light in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
One narrative thread that runs consistently through the case studies in Triumphs & Tragedies of the Modern Presidency is the testing of new presidents by crisis. Of course, many administrations are born of crisis. Franklin Roosevelt assumed power at the height of the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Gerald Ford’s ascension ended what he called the “long national nightmare” of Watergate and the Nixon impeachment. Barack Obama’s first weeks and months in the Oval Office were consumed by a global financial meltdown and the Great Recession. And then there were the presidents who inherited hot wars that demanded immediate attention and decisions with life-and-death consequences, including Harry Truman (World War II), Dwight Eisenhower (the Korean War), Richard Nixon (Vietnam) and Barack Obama (Iraq and Afghanistan).
For those who would govern the “shining city on a hill” and lead “the indispensable nation,” crisis is always lurking just beyond the visible horizon. Consider that in their defining first years in the Oval Office, Harry Truman decided to drop the first atomic bombs on Japan, John F. Kennedy endured the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, Gerald Ford faced the Mayaguez crisis in Cambodia and the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese, Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt, George H. W. Bush launched the invasion of Panama, Bill Clinton confronted the “Black Hawk Down” military debacle in Somalia, and George W. Bush was rocked by the worst attack on the U.S. homeland since Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001.
A senior source that participated in the Trump transition confirmed that the new president and his team are determined to “break some china” internationally. He’s off to a good start. Trump has called the United States’ bedrock security alliance NATO “obsolete,” and praised the breakup of the European Union. He has called for renegotiating the One China policy with Beijing, and the NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Breaking with a half century of U.S. peacemaking policy in trying to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has promised to move the U.S. embassy to disputed Jerusalem. He continues to reach out to the dictator Vladimir Putin, even after the Russian strongman has redrawn the borders of eastern Europe by military force, and meddled in our recent presidential election. In his quest for the next really big deal, Trump clearly has an appetite for confrontation and disruption. The history of the modern presidency suggests that he won’t have to wait long to indulge it.
James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a Defense One contributor. He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written on defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, DC for more than two decades. You can follow him on Twitter: @JamesKitfield.
Image: Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Arizona. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore