Critics who say President Trump knows nothing about governing aren’t being fair. There are at some well-worn Washington politician maneuvers he’s mastered fast and is already practicing at expert levels: Flip-Flopping and Moving the Goalposts. He’s pioneered a third, uniquely Trumpian move: Blustering Up to the Brink of No Return, and . . . Backing Down.
Give Trump credit where it’s due — his flip-flops have been tremendous: NATO, China, Syria, Export-Import Bank, to name a few.
He’s moved the goalposts big-league, vowing Mexico would pay for our border wall, and now tweeting, with more caveats than commas, that “eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.”
Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2017
Trump promised to “immediately” repeal and replace Obamacare, to demand a bill on his “first day,” which would “be so easy.” When the GOP bill performed the legislative circus act of bursting into flames, Trump waved off the defeat: “I never said repeal it and replace it within 64 days.”
In blustering and bluffing, he’s definitely the greatest. A government shutdown loomed this week if Congress wouldn’t fund his border wall, but when it became clear that was a deal-breaker, Trump caved. On Wednesday, there was high drama when he summoned all 100 senators for a North Korea briefing that looked as if we might go to war. Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois called it a “dog and pony show,” saying they could’ve gotten the same “information from reading a newspaper.” The same day, the White House drafted documents to pull out of NAFTA. Change of plans: Trump issued a statement that it was his “honor” to talk with Canada and Mexico about updating the accord.
Why the dramatic flurry? Saturday marks Trump’s first 100 days in office, so it’s time for that hoary media tradition of judging our leaders against an arbitrary date on the calendar.
When it suited him, Trump thought the 100-day metric was pretty spiffy; he put his 100-day action plan on his website. On Feb. 16, naming his second choice for labor secretary after his first went down in ignominy, he declared: “We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what I have done.”
On April 8, he said, “I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” citing job numbers, his planned military buildup, and his hard bargaining to bring down aircraft prices. On April 18, Trump added hyperbolically, “No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.”
Really, President Trump? Really?
Let me remind him, in case he’s forgotten this minor snippet of our history, of who invented the standard. With the nation mired in the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt took bold action in his first 100 days. Aided by overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress, he passed the Emergency Banking Act and started to roll out the New Deal, starting with the Federal Emergency Relief Act.
There hasn’t been an emergency equal to the Great Depression since, and no one has matched the enormity and legacy of FDR’s. Sure, the honeymoon period is arguably when presidents can get the most done, but 100 days is an arbitrary and silly standard. Yet in our 24/7 news culture, it’s one more obsession for the media and for our media-obsessed president.
I’m not saying presidents shouldn’t be held accountable. We should be doing this every day, and interactive projects, including by Politifact, The New York Times and ABC News, are tracking action on Trump’s pledges.
So let’s take stock of Trump’s own checklist. He got a Supreme Court justice. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific trade deal. He signed entry bans affecting several Muslim countries, but those are held up in courts. He signed an order that for every new regulation, two others must be removed. He cleared the way for two pipelines. He banned White House officials lobbying for foreign governments. That’s it so far. Now with few points on the board, Trump calls the 100-day measure “ridiculous.” He’s right.
The 100-day report card shouldn’t be the motivator driving White House words and deeds. If Trump wants success, he needs input from all stakeholders and clear plans that aren’t captive to artificial metrics.
With the unfocused, ratings-obsessed policymaking we’ve seen so far, Trump may not be capable of this. But who knows — maybe he can change. He’s proved himself the greatest at flip-flops on tremendous big-league things already.Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.