The White House has few wins, no strategy, and one big problem that can't be fixed: the president himself.
- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
I’ll cede right upfront that 100 days is a wholly arbitrary standard by which to judge an administration’s success. But it is as lasting a Franklin Roosevelt legacy as Social Security, and the Trump administration validated it as a measuring stick for grading its performance, so here’s my preliminary assessment.
The appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was a major achievement, even at the significant price paid of ending the 60-vote threshold for confirmation of Supreme Court justices. Not only is Gorsuch an eminently qualified selection, but his appointment served the crucial purpose of affirming to conservatives that however erratic President Donald Trump may otherwise be, he made good on his promise of a solid high-court selection. That will buy the president an awful lot of sail to make mistakes in other domains before conservatives desert him.
And he will need it, because the rest of his agenda has run aground. Despite what is ostensibly his political party in command of both houses of Congress, the president suffered a huge defeat by failing to pass legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare. Whatever the relative merits of the legislation, Trump could not garner the support of his party. The president’s cursory attempts seemed to falter on his lack of substantive understanding of the issue and the legislation, his failure to comprehend that ostensible allies had alternatives to supporting him, and his issuance of hollow threats easily dismissed by his adversaries.
Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees was an even higher-profile failure. Unlike the executive order on the National Security Council, whose deficiencies seem to be more of sloppiness in drafting rather than malevolence, the immigration EO seemed purposeful — it intended to do what it said it would do, and the president repeatedly reinforced that impression. Not only did the attempt damage America’s standing in the world and fray the country’s multicultural cohesion, but Trump energized the courts, civil society groups, and a wide swathe of Americans to oppose his policy. Crazily enough, the Trump administration’s illiberal tendencies may prove a boon for American democracy by revitalizing the checks and balances that constrain executive action and stimulating civics education.
In the national security realm, Trump has needlessly alienated America’s friends and showed himself decidedly unserious about addressing the paramount vulnerability of our country, which is our rapidly accruing national debt. His budget request would wildly expand deficit spending, relying on draconian cuts to small-ticket discretionary items (like the State Department budget) without addressing the entitlements elephant that will very quickly crowd out all other government spending — even before the interest rate hikes the Federal Reserve has initiated kick in to bond market prices. To the president’s credit, he did make clear his priorities; budgets are, after all, documents that reveal governing priorities. But Trump doesn’t appear to have legislative support to pass such a budget. Firing a salvo can be a useful tactic, even if it doesn’t achieve all you wanted. But coming on the heels of other legislative failures, the budget is more likely to highlight the president’s ineffectualness at governing.
The selection of reasonable men for the cabinet’s national security portfolios, and fortuitous immolation of the deeply compromised national security advisor Mike Flynn, has attenuated concern about the Trump administration’s handling of foreign policy. But the paucity of appointments to fill out the ranks in State and the Department of Defense is beginning to look like design to leave them hobbled.
Meanwhile, the unfolding of Syria policy seems likely to parallel in its deficiencies the characteristics of the president’s domestic policies. A reasonable but unarticulated policy driven by the DOD has emerged: Increase the pace of military operations to defeat the Islamic State, leave President Bashar al-Assad in place to prevent a post-Islamic State power vacuum, prioritize cooperation against the Islamic State in relations with Middle East countries over concerns about domestic governance or their conduct of military operations, and respect Russian interests. In the space of 24 hours by Trump’s reaction to the 25th or so use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, he changed course, electing to punitively strike a jointly manned Syrian-Russia air base from which the chemical attack had been launched.
The administration has been a cacophony of divergent voices since. Trump’s statement was expansive — Wilsonian — in its internationalism. The U.N. ambassador whipped up regime change in her statements. The secretary of defense remains mostly silent but issued a statement narrowly interpreting the change in policy to encompass only penalizing and deterring chemical weapons use. The national security advisor championed that expansion as a big change in policy. The secretary of state has labored to keep Syria policy narrowly focused but seems to believe the strike will radically change Russia’s calculus, causing it to forgo the large investment it has made in Assad’s survival. On the eve of his trip to Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson goaded G-7 allies to challenge Russia’s fundamental foreign-policy direction. The White House spokesman seemed to expand the mandate to preventing Assad from using barrel bombs without chemical weapons.
The administration’s problem is deeper than talking at cross-purposes. Strategy requires discipline, and indiscipline is the fundamental characteristic of this president. He indulges himself to be unpredictable, but predictability actually matters in national security. It helps prevent miscalculation in complex circumstances. It clarifies who your friends and adversaries are, allowing you to array the former against the latter. It allows allies to synchronize their policies to reinforce ours, and rewards them for doing so. It prioritizes action. It is essential to cost-efficiency. The pattern emerging in Trump’s first 100 days is of a scattershot administration with scant ability to organize and lead domestic or international activity.
Maybe none of this will matter to the president’s supporters — perhaps his value statements like the budget priorities, the wall, and the immigration ban are sufficient. But if the characteristics on display in the health care thrust and Syria are indicative of Trump’s governing skills, not even the deliberative men of his cabinet can compensate for these deficiencies. They can give better shape to the president’s policies, but they cannot prevent him from making erratic choices and adopting contradictory policies, which Trump seems inclined to champion as a virtue. Much as the public and the administration might wish otherwise, in the American system of government, there’s no way to marginalize the influence of the president.
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