Looking back at President TrumpDonald John TrumpWH officials discuss HHS secretary replacement following criticism of pandemic response: WSJ Pentagon leaders at impasse about next steps for Capt. Brett Crozier: report Trump forgoes WH press briefing for the first time since Easter weekend MORE’s first year, it is almost telling that it ended with the specter of a government shutdown. It reflects the continued breakdown of political functioning, yet provides the media the drama they need to remain in high dudgeon.
These were all trends that existed long before Trump and “Trumpism” arrived on the political scene, as our political incentive structures favor tribal partisanship instead of compromise, with a growing media universe dedicated to covering, and dramatizing, each step of the political horse race. Using the lens of history to understand the first year of the Trump presidency shows us how it is both a symptom of and accelerant to the breakdown in American politics.
Throughout the modern history of the American presidency, each occupant of the office has understood — often with the benefit of hindsight — that the first year of their presidency is the only window in which they have to take meaningful action. After that, partisan headwinds, congressional opposition, the permanent campaign, and day-to-day crises on the domestic and global stages combine to wear away the president’s political capital and restrict the executive branch’s freedom of action.
Beyond the short window for action, the president must also staff their White House and set their mark on a wide range of executive and regulatory authorities that do not require legislation. These presidential decisions may not rise to the same level of historical import as major legislative accomplishments, but they do serve to set the tone for the administration and the culture of Washington.
For Franklin Roosevelt, the benchmark by which we set a “First 100 Days,” his first year in office reflected the need for immediate action in the face of the Great Depression and the assembly of an administration of progressive technocrats to build what would become the New Deal. For Dwight Eisenhower, it was the creation of Project Solarium to apply the same strategic planning and vision that won World War II to set the course of the Cold War, and balance domestic and foreign policy priorities.
Lyndon Johnson faced a unique circumstance in his first year of moving from the tragedy of John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE’s assassination to the creation of an enduring civil rights legacy and “Great Society.” Ronald Reagan combined a mixture of sunny, California optimism with a conservative ideology that could be orthodox at times, pragmatic at others.
The tone of President Trump’s first year was set in his actions of his first few weeks. Much ink has already been spilt covering the tenor of the inaugural address, the early actions on immigration, and disorganized staffing stemming from a tumultuous transition. With little interest in reaching out beyond his political base, the Trump presidency has widened the already chasm-like divides in American politics.
For a president without the traditional ideological “lanes” from a career in politics, he became a conduit for the diverse priorities of his supporters and the centers of gravity within his White House. Compared to the streamlined agendas of his predecessors, President Trump would whipsaw from one priority to another, as the unpredictability long associated with congressional politics became the norm in the White House.
On the global stage, the year has been marked by the divergence between the brash presidential statements of the campaign trail, political rallies, and his Twitter feed, compared to the quiet reassurances to allies from the president’s national security and foreign policy team. While there has not been a major international crisis, global hot spots abound and confrontation seems near.
In the longer run, there are question marks about U.S. leadership on the global stage. While this is more loudly demonstrated by presidential skepticism of international institutions and alliances, it is also reflected in the lack of leadership, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, to provide the long-term strategy and resourcing needed for American military and diplomatic leadership.
Thus, as the Trump presidency has been less about the “Art of the Deal,” it has reflected the drama of reality television. Tweets and scandals have overshadowed the actions of the first year, along with many other stories. Never before has there been such a media circus surrounding the successes and pitfalls of an administration, and never has it been viewed through such a partisan lens.
Therefore, the American people can choose their narrative. The tax reform measures are either a massive boost to the economy, or a handout to the top 1 percent. Measures to cut regulation could be tools to empower businesses and entrepreneurs, or threats to the environment and public health. President Trump has built strong relationships with foreign leaders, or foreign autocrats have figured out how to flatter the president’s ego.
Ultimately, the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency is defined by the historic dysfunction present in American politics. Based on the tone of the first year of this administration, Washington will remain as partisan as ever, even as the economy continues to grow and the American people feel optimistic. What will perhaps define the second year of President Trump is whether the other institutions of the American economy and society can endure the division in our politics.
Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.