As the White House Correspondents’ Dinner recedes into a distant memory, overtaken by everything from the French election to Sally Yates, the media’s stock-taking of Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office missed one key thing: In almost every story, reporters, pundits, and correspondents paid curious little attention to a key aspect of the story: what has Trump learned during his short time in the Oval?
It’s a simple but critical question now that Trump is past the first man-made phase on the presidential calendar. He has another three and a half years to burnish his credentials, put some points on the scoreboard, and persuade moderate Republicans that he isn’t a liability to the GOP’s brand in the midterm elections next year. None of that, though, may come to fruition if Trump doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Whether you happen to a rabid pro-Trumper or a diehard #NeverTrumper, we should all at least be able to agree that Trump’s success in the job means America’s success at home and around the world. There’s nothing partisan about that, is there?
Here are three lessons that Trump and his staff must revisit as they prepare for the future.
1. Words matter when you’re president
I’m sure there are probably a couple officials in the White House who would like Trump to lay off the 5am Twitter posts or tone down some of the heated rhetoric heard at his campaign-style rallies in the Rust Belt. Last year, campaign staffers attempted to put a big, beautiful, border wall between Trump and his Twitter account, which Trump blasted through like a bull in a china shop. During the campaign, Trump simply had no incentive to calm things down: his base loved the bluntness of it all; the media gobbled it up due to the high ratings that the coverage received; the antics distinguished Trump’s brazen but fresh approach from his Democratic opponent, who often looked like a cookie-cutter politician; and his poll numbers weren’t really hurt by it.
This isn’t the case when you are president, however. Being commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful country means that every single phrase that is uttered will be parsed by foreign leaders. All of a sudden, saying NATO is obsolete isn’t a joke anymore. Bragging about pulling federal funds from sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement is no longer a campaign rallying cry, but rather a piece of ammunition that judges can use to block one of your executive orders. Every word in a speech—every tag line in a press conference—ceases to become ratings fodder for the media. Instead, the rhetoric is now something very, very serious—so serious, in fact, that it could send a chill up an ally’s spine or stall an initiative in the court system.
2. Checks and balances means trouble
Like many presidents who came before him, Trump seemed to relish the idea of getting big things done during his first several months. Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act…that’ll be easy. Draining the swamp? Who doesn’t like to see lobbyists stripped of their power? Cutting down the size of government and boosting funding for the US armed forces? Surely congressional Republicans wouldn’t step in the way of that, right?
Well, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The system of checks and balances, the most cherished instrument in the US Constitution, also happens to be an enormously frustrating roadblock to what the president wants to accomplish. Just because Donald Trump is now the nominal head of the Republican Party doesn’t mean that his priorities will be embraced without question by GOP lawmakers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. To the Trump White House, slashing the State Department by nearly 30% is a necessary correction to a bloated department. For defense-minded Republicans and Democrats, however, cutting State Department resources is a dangerous proposition that hinders the work that American diplomats are trying to accomplish in the national interest. Adding 70,000 soldiers to the Army, increasing the size of the Navy to 350 ships, and introducing another 100 combat aircraft to the Air Force isn’t as straightforward when you sit in the Oval Office and have to deal with a unified Democratic Party that is resolutely opposed to paying for it with domestic cuts. Being president of the United States, in other words, means being one cog in the machine—not the machine itself.
3. The wounds of the election are still raw
When a new president is inaugurated, they typically have some kind of mandate from the American people. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 were nothing short of a political tidal wave in America. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was such a monumental event in US history that the young professor-turned-president had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which he used to great effect in overhauling the country’s healthcare system. Donald Trump doesn’t have that kind of mandate—he is the most unpopular American president in contemporary history.
Democrats are still angry that they lost the general election in such humiliating fashion, and they understand that their powerful base of left-wing, progressive supporters simply don’t want to cooperate with anything that the Trump administration is attempting to do. Chuck Schumer, the same Senate minority leader who once talked about working with the new administration when interests align, is now the principal roadblock to Trump’s initiatives. Republicans, meanwhile, are as divided today as they were during last year’s campaign. When you’re forced to deal with unified Democratic opposition on the one hand and a Republican caucus on the other that often resembles a collection of mini-statelets (the Freedom Caucus, moderates, defense hawks, fiscal conservatives, etc.), even something as politically shocking to the system as Trump’s election hasn’t been able to shock Washington out its hyper-partisan gridlock.
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Those writing Trump off as an ineffective chief executive and a man who doesn’t appreciate the history, weight, and importance of his office are writing him off way too early—yes, even considering his Andrew Jackson gaffe. But ultimately, it’s up to Donald Trump to prove his critics wrong, and he can only do that if he acknowledges his mistakes and learns the lessons of his first 100 days