He Performed Poorly (Gazette, “Point Counterpoint,” Sunday, April 30, 2017)
The very notion of evaluating a president within the first 100 days is problematic. Can anyone accomplish much in three months? Is the performance a harbinger of the rest of the term? More importantly, what are the criteria for a positive or negative assessment?
Behavioral economists remind us that we assess based on comparisons, as there is no absolute yardstick to guide us. Following them, we should perhaps compare Trump to FDR (the first to call attention to this benchmark) who was able to complete 15 legislative initiatives in his first 100 days.
Though a high benchmark, it might be fitting in Trump’s case, since he endorsed it in Gettysburg before the election: “On Nov. 8th, Americans will be voting for this 100-day plan to restore prosperity to our country, secure our communities and honesty to our government. This is my pledge to you.”
Fast forward to April 21, 2017 and to Trump’s tweet: “No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!”
The pledge was grandiose, the self-expectation remains high, but the benchmark is now dismissed. Why?
An NBC/WSJ poll (April 23, 2017) suggests that 45% of respondents think Trump is “off to a poor start,” 19% “only a fair start.” By comparison, Obama's overall positive rating at this stage of his presidency was 61%, Bush's 56%, and Clinton’s 52%; Trump’s stands at 40%.
Perhaps Trump is correct that it’s a “ridiculous standard,” but would he have said the opposite if his numbers were higher? Since 70% of the US economy depends on consumer spending, public opinion matters; positive mindset loosens our pocketbooks and grows the economy.
Legislatively, Trump’s record is poor, as none of his campaign promises have become law by his Republican-controlled congress: “repeal and replace Obamacare,” overhaul of tax policy, and renegotiated trade agreements. Two executive orders on travel and immigration bans are tied in courts; the great wall isn’t being built (Mexico isn’t paying, either).
As for foreign relations, no coherent worldview is offered. Instead, contradictory tweets and photo-ops are the new normal. The rhetoric about the Chinese menace (currency manipulator and export dumper) has been softened, the irrelevance of NATO is countered with official support, and the admiration of Putin has been replaced with derision.
As for military action, the bombing of a Syrian airfield seemed powerful, but without an overall strategy it’s almost meaningless. The naval show of force off the coast of North-Korea is dangerous if diplomacy is replaced with “playing chicken.” Unlike real-estate deals, the US cannot just walk away from international negotiations.
Perhaps a charitable way of viewing Trump’s record is thinking of him as a postpartisan president, one who isn’t committed to any ideology (and therefore flexible), offering provisional tactics that aren’t part of an overall strategy.
Being influenced by the latest newsfeed shows adaptability, and being supple in the face of changing circumstances suggests entrepreneurial open-mindedness. But being clueless about the complexity of the office is a poor excuse for someone who uses superlatives in describing himself. This isn’t a reality show; and being “fired” for poor performance is a scary democratic option.
Raphael Sassower, Philosophy, UCCS