Donald Trump’s first 100 days as President are over. What does this opening act tell us about how he will handle the office of President for the rest of his term? Barring the hiring of an extremely competent and very influential new advisor who could majorly shake up his administration, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a major departure from these first few months. First, research suggests that the older someone is the less likely they are to change, and Trump, at 70, is America’s oldest newly elected president. Second, Trump’s behavior in the first 100 days fits a clear and repeated pattern from his business career: seeking short-term personal wins (particularly wins that garner him significant publicity) at the expense of much larger long-term collective losses. Third, change takes a lot of work, and Trump himself seems to see no reason to put in the effort: he has called his first 100 days “just about the most successful in our country’s history.” So, if you like what you’ve seen so far, you’re in luck. If not, brace yourself for about 1,300 more days of the same.
Donald Trump’s first 100 days as U.S. president are over. On 10 things he promised to achieve in that span that required legislation to enact, he came up empty, despite Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. His only unqualified achievement has been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, something that is likely to leave a lasting legacy but that could have and would have been done by any Republican president. During the first 100 days, traditionally a honeymoon period for a new president, Trump’s approval ratings have been the lowest of all presidents for whom we have data.
The question now is whether this opening act tells us anything about how Trump will handle the office of president for the rest of his term. Any conclusions we might draw should be very tentative. Many have pointed out that Bill Clinton’s first 100 days were widely viewed as a struggle, before he righted the ship and went on to become a two-term president. But fewer have recalled that Clinton’s rebound was aided by his appointment of Leon Panetta, a former congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget, as his chief of staff two years into his term. It was Panetta, who had been critical of the new president’s (ultimately failed) approach to health care reform, who eliminated much of the chaos that had hindered the Clinton administration’s early performance. There’s certainly the possibility that Trump could make a similar move, although it’s hard to imagine who a willing Panetta equivalent would be, since Trump’s inner circle seems to be primarily made up of political neophytes and family members. Trump would have to identify and recruit a Republican whose opinion he trusted and respected enough to defer to and who was a clever enough political manager to overcome the factionalism of the Trump White House.
This doesn’t mean that improvement is impossible. Even in its first 100 days Trump’s White House has improved somewhat, with the replacement of Michael Flynn by the supremely capable H.R. McMaster and the apparent marginalization of Steve Bannon. In the end, however, the White House revolves around the president. In the absence of a chief of staff powerful enough to make up for the president’s weaknesses (the classic examples are James Baker and Howard Baker in the Reagan administration), the strengths and weaknesses of the president will play a major role in determining the performance and behavior of a White House. Since it’s unlikely that President Trump will hire a sufficiently capable outsider to fill that role, how likely is it that he himself will change? Not very, in my view.
First, while it’s possible that Trump’s behavior might evolve, it’s unlikely, particularly because, at 70, Trump is the oldest president ever elected. To put that in perspective, he’s 24 years older than Clinton was when he was elected. It’s a sensitive subject, but political psychologist Jerrold Post and neurological surgeon and historian Bert Park have shown that as leaders age, rather than mellowing out, they become more extreme versions of themselves, almost becoming caricatures. There are some neurological benefits to an older brain, up to about age 70, but adaptability is not one of them.
Second, Trump’s behavior in the first 100 days fits a clear and repeated pattern from his business career: seeking short-term personal wins (particularly wins that garner him significant publicity) at the expense of much larger, long-term collective losses. Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, for example, raised his public profile enormously but filed for bankruptcy only about a year after it opened. Trump Airlines, similarly, was a front-page splash that turned into an economic disaster within three years. Trump’s involvement in the upstart United States Football League, and his lawsuit against the incumbent National Football League, kept him in the headlines, but ended in the dissolution of the USFL. Trump Mortgage, Trump Steaks, and Trump University all may have gained him some short-term cash flow, but it came at the expense of degrading his brand or leaving him open to lawsuits for fraud. In essence many, even most, of Trump’s businesses fit the pattern of failures following fanfare, with the cycle eventually beginning again when Trump announces a new venture targeted at a new set of customers.
If Trump’s first 100 days departed from this pattern, we might expect change, in the form of a regression to the mean, in the future. Instead, his first 100 days conform to and confirm it: attention-grabbing headlines (saying he’ll label China a currency manipulator, pull out of NAFTA, shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund a border wall, and pass a health care bill that’s both cheaper and better than the Affordable Care Act), followed by failure to follow through (none of these things have actually happened). Even short-term wins, such as favorable media coverage after his military strike in Syria, have remained short-term wins; any larger policy or strategic goals they are a part of remain unclear.
The final reason I don’t expect Trump to change is simply that change takes a lot of work. From things Trump has said, such as that he thought the presidency “would be easier” than it’s turned out to be, I don’t expect him to put in the effort it would take to significantly change his approach. And more fundamentally, he doesn’t seem to see a need to change. He has called his first 100 days “just about the most successful in our country’s history,” filled with a “long list of achievements.”
So, if you like what you’ve seen so far, you’re in luck. If not, brace yourself for about 1,300 more days of the same.
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