President Trump’s first 100 days in office have been unlike any other. But a closer look at the five previous White House administrations show that many of Trump’s legislative challenges and foibles during this time were not unique.
Of course, none of Trump’s predecessors spent their first 100 days defending the size of their inauguration crowds, accusing the previous White House occupant of wire tapping them, or learning that their campaign has been under FBI investigation for months. No president has had such a low job approval rating at this point either.
But, like Trump, Ronald Reagan pushed a big tax cut package. George H.W. Bush struggled with how to follow a popular two-term president. Bill Clinton failed to pass a major domestic bill through Congress in his first 100 days.
Even on foreign policy, Trump’s first 100 days are not so different from his predecessors’. He authorized an airstrike on Syria; George W. Bush ordered attacks in Iraq to enforce a no-fly zone. While Trump has been unable to make any progress on his campaign pledge to build a southern border wall, Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay during his first 100 days. (It remains open today.)
More broadly, Trump is confronting similar struggles compared to the five presidents before him:
Like Reagan and Clinton, Trump begins with a decentralized White House staff
The infighting among Trump’s staff has been the source of endless unflattering headlines. Most presidents have at least one Cabinet pick go south for some reason, but few administrations have had such widely reported staff drama at nearly every policy pressure point in the first 100 days.
The knives have been out for White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus since the beginning. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears marginalized. Adviser Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer have earned their own “Saturday Night Live” characters. And then there’s the big battle between advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon.
This level of internal conflict may seem unprecedented — and in some ways, it is — but Reagan had similar issues during in his first 100 days. He came into the White House as a Hollywood celebrity, employing a handful of equally powerful advisers at the top — namely Edwin Meese, James Baker III, and Michael Deaver. There was significant infighting among them, as well as among the Cabinet members.
Much of this infighting was instigated by Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, who took on not just Vice President George H.W. Bush, but also the budget director over foreign aid, the transportation secretary on Japanese auto imports, and the agriculture secretary over Soviet grain imports. Reagan staffers also had to contend with a very powerful family member: first lady Nancy Reagan.
The biggest difference between Reagan and Trump, at least so far, is that Reagan found one big issue — his tax cut package — and focused on it almost exclusively in his first 100 days. Trump has seized on a new issue nearly every day (or every hour, if you count the tweets).
In many ways, this makes Trump’s first 100 days in office more comparable to Clinton’s. And the hodge-podge, scattered agenda behind both Clinton’s and Trump’s first 100 days might be rooted in the same problem.
Neither president had a strong chief of staff, and both had a more decentralized White House in which many top aides have the ear of the president. In the case of Clinton’s White House, the first chief of staff was Mack McLarty, Clinton’s friend since kindergarten. But an internal analysis after the rough 1994 midterm elections suggested that McLarty didn’t bring enough order to the White House, and people were going around him. He resigned.
George W. Bush also started with a chip on his shoulder
When the second Bush took the White House, he did so by losing the popular vote and having the US Supreme Court essentially declare him the winner a month before taking office. Trump won the Electoral College outright, but he lost the popular vote.
Both began their first 100 days trying to reassert their power in office against the backdrop of a politically divided nation. Bush signed only seven pieces of legislation in his first 100 days. Trump has technically signed 28 pieces of legislation into law, but none has been considered a major triumph.
Any 100 days comparison to Obama might be unfair
The easiest comparison for Trump is Obama’s first 100 days, but this history really isn’t a fair guide.
Yes, Obama was able to pass big legislative items like a stimulus plan, an auto bailout bill, and a fair pay act. But Obama had something that Trump doesn’t have: a national financial crisis. In the throes of the Great Recession, legislators knew the price of doing nothing would be much greater than passing bills, however imperfect.
This year? The economy is strong, albeit uneven. And compared to Obama’s time, at least, there is no immediate financial crisis. So far, many in Congress would rather cool their heels while they size up their new president.