Donald Trump’s presidency is in a sorry state. His first attempt at legislation — on health care — was a failure. His executive order on immigration has been blocked by the courts. His White House is a tangle of chaos and intrigue. His campaign and his businesses are under congressional investigation.
And yet, Trump has plenty of time to recover. The first 100 days, an arbitrary checkpoint, are only 7 percent of a four-year term. It’s not unusual for new presidents to stumble — and it’s not impossible to bounce back. Just look at Bill Clinton.
In 1993, Clinton’s first year in the White House, his presidency nearly went off the rails. His staff was chaotic. His foreign policy was a mess. He passed an economic plan, barely, but his biggest initiative — on health care — was headed for disaster. And, of course, he was sinking in the polls.
It took Clinton more than a year, but by the end of 1994 he was on the way back. He named a new chief of staff who brought discipline to the White House. He changed course on policy, adopted a strategy of bipartisan “triangulation,” survived epic battles with a Republican-led Congress — and, in 1996, sailed easily to re-election.
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So I asked two veterans of the Clinton White House, now scholars at Washington’s Brookings Institution, what Trump should do if he wants to follow Clinton’s example. They offered, in essence, a three-step recovery plan.
Step 1: Recognize the problem.
“The real question here is: Will something right the ship?” said Elaine Kamarck, who worked on Clinton’s government reform project. “Will there be a moment … when Donald Trump says: This is not working, I have to do something different?”
“Everything depends on what happens when instincts that served you well in the campaign don’t serve you well as president,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser.
Step 2: Fix the White House staff.
“Presidents get the staff they want,” Kamarck said — in Trump’s case, “people who don’t contradict him,” many without Washington experience, with no single person in charge.
If Trump wants less chaos, he needs to reorganize his operation. An obvious place to start: Name a chief of staff with real authority to reduce the level of palace intrigue. Trump reportedly likes to see his underlings jockey for influence; he hasn’t given Reince Priebus the power to rein them in.
Step 3: Expand your governing coalition.
“Trump’s not expanding his base; he’s shrinking his base,” noted Galston.
Trump ran as a populist, but he has governed mainly as an orthodox Republican. He’s relied on House Republicans to pass his legislative agenda, but that’s left him whipsawed between Speaker Paul Ryan and the ultraconservatives of the House Freedom Caucus.
As a result, he has held the allegiance of most Republican voters, but he’s lost support among independents and won almost no backing from Democrats.
The alternative, based on Clinton’s 1994 playbook, would be a turn toward the bipartisan center.
“If you take the populist parts of the program he ran on, there’s plenty to appeal to labor unions,” Kamarck said. “He could start with infrastructure, which means construction jobs, and ask union leaders to get support from Democrats on the Hill. Add a tougher trade policy and tax changes to keep American jobs from going overseas, and you have a way to build a different kind of coalition.”
But that isn’t how Trump has ordered his priorities. Meanwhile, he has alienated Democrats in Congress by blaming them for his legislative problems, even when — as on healthcare — Republicans were at fault.
If he decides to change course, Trump won’t find it too wrenching to alter his policies; he’s done that frequently during his 22-month political career. The greater challenge may be changing his management habits – recognizing, at age 70, that what worked in a family-owned real estate firm may not work as well in the White House.
But there’s no sign yet that he’s noticed the problem.
He’s still in full Trump mode, declaring every setback a success. Just look at his self-review of the first 100 days. They were, he proclaimed, the most productive of any president in history.