Since FDR, a president’s first 100 days offer an important – if arbitrary – measure for evaluating success. While it is unlikely any executive will again match the productivity of Roosevelt, most scholars of the presidency agree that this period still matters for advancing an administration’s agenda.
As a scholar of the presidency and the press, I’ve found the beginning of the Trump administration morbidly fascinating.
Despite his boasts, Trump’s legislative agenda appears to be stalled. As we approach day 100, many will point critically to the dearth of bills coming across Trump’s desk. However, focusing solely on legislation overlooks a thriving aspect of the Trump presidency: the use of unilateral powers like executive orders, memoranda and proclamations.
Trump goes it alone
Trump hit the ground running with a flurry of unilateral activity. This burst of direct actions may seem surprising in light of Trump’s past statements. In 2012, he took to Twitter to criticize President Obama for “constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority.” According to the American Presidency Project, Trump has surpassed his power-grabbing predecessor in unilateral actions, and in less time.
Trump is clearly making a concerted effort to fulfill his campaign promises. In areas where he can act alone, Trump has made gestures – some symbolic, others more substantive – toward 14 of the 18 pledges outlined in his Contract with the American Voter. With a stroke of the pen, Trump attempted to reduce the number of people working for the government, “drain the swamp” and advance pipeline projects.
Repealing the last eight years
Many of Trump’s initial direct actions, as presidential scholar Julia Azari tells us, highlight “the major symbolic differences between the new administration and the previous one.” This means Trump has spent time repealing the unilateral actions of his predecessor, a common move for an administration taking the keys to the White House from the opposing party.
Trump has rescinded some of Obama’s most heralded executive orders, such as the order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. Under the Trump administration, federal contractors no longer are required to disclose whether they have violated workplace laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act. As the Detroit Free Press put it, “The law no longer requires companies to be transparent about employee pay, women and minorities have no way of knowing whether their wages are fair, and … the government has undercut progress in closing the gender wage gap.”
Like all Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan, Trump signed a memorandum reinstating the Mexico City Policy. Opponents refer to it as the “global gag rule” because it prohibits funding any international health organization that mentions abortion as part of family planning. According to Ann M. Starrs, president of the Guttmacher Institute, Trump’s robust reinstatement of this policy puts nearly US$10 billion in foreign aid at risk. Trump’s action signals a major blow to the international health community, as the U.S. is the leading funder of global health programs. More concerning, says Starrs, “millions of women in low-resource settings may now be unable to obtain the care they need.”
In a nod to the coal industry, Trump signed an order rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, “turning denials of climate change into national policy.” The directive also imperils the Paris Agreement on climate, as the Clean Power Plan was Obama’s primary means of achieving the goals of the accord.
Immigration and the wall
Many of Trump’s most contentious direct actions deal with immigration, deportation and border security, issues that were central to his campaign and have evoked public outrage and legal reprimands.
Deriding the federal government for failing to discharge the “basic sovereign responsibility” of stopping undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S., Trump ordered the construction of a wall “to secure the nation’s southern border.” Trump also called on authorities to “repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently and humanely.”
Trump and the political system
Presidents and their unilateral powers operate in a system of checks and balances. While the majority of unilateral actions go unchallenged, the political system does sometimes push back.
Trump’s immigration ban orders were quashed by the courts. Many of his unilateral actions will eventually require acts of Congress. Moreover, Trump will soon have to put down his pen and work with Congress to fund the government, or his 100th day in office will mark the start of a government shutdown.
A recent study of Trump’s direct actions by the Los Angeles Times found that “fewer than half actually made a substantive change in federal policy.” The orders’ effectiveness is also in question. For example, despite Trump’s hiring freeze, the federal government added 6,000 new hires during January and February. The freeze was lifted in April.
Though many of Trump’s unilateral directives are symbolic, political scientist Andrew Rudalevige argues that “any presidential signal to the bureaucracy needs to be taken seriously.” For example, despite the ineffectiveness of the Obamacare directive, “the order makes clear the direction of action the president expects.”
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton, quoting Maya Angelou, stated that when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Since taking office 100 days ago, Trump has made it abundantly clear the type of president he is through his unilateral directives. We should believe him.