Julian Zelizer says that with all the turmoil of Trump's first 70 days in office, he still has the potential to turn around his administration, just as other first-term presidents have
A major policy win could give Trump momentum, unless he gets consumed by the Russia investigations, Zelizer says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
It would be a big mistake to count President Trump out too soon. Although he has experienced a difficult two months, it is important to remember that other presidents have survived incredibly rocky starts and gone on to enjoy two-terms.
Without question, President Trump has been making an enormous number of serious mistakes and miscalculations. He has allowed his political capital to go out the window with sloppily crafted executive orders banning refugees, by badly mishandling the negotiations over repealing the Affordable Care Act, and by making almost no progress on the legislative front.
His wild tweets and irresponsible statements are contributing to his low national approval ratings (other presidents have had similarly low approval ratings). The courts and Congress have been able to check the President on several occasions, while a grassroots opposition movement called Indivisible succeeded at shaking legislators in both parties, forcing them to think twice about quickly throwing their support behind the President.
The investigation into Russia is the most serious threat that he faces. When former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn asked for immunity in exchange for his testimony, every American with a historical memory could not help but ask if he would become this administration’s John Dean.
And yet it is important to remember that other presidents, two-term presidents, have been able to survive rocky and controversial starts to their presidency.
Republican Ronald Reagan, who ended up remaking American politics by pushing the national debate sharply to the right, struggled during his first few months in office. His proposed cuts to the budget were met with a fierce resistance as Americans discovered what his rhetorical attacks on government would actually mean if implemented into law. The laggard state of the economy made it difficult for Reagan to expand his public support especially as his economic package stalled in a Republican-dominated Senate Budget Committee.
He didn’t sign his first bill – cutting back dairy price supports – until March 31 at George Washington University Hospital the morning after he was shot in an assassination attempt.
President Bill Clinton had trouble through his first summer in the White House. A series of controversial and problematic cabinet appointments, including a series of missteps with his Attorney General (Janet Reno, his third choice, was not confirmed until March) left him looking incompetent and stifled progress on his legislation.
His watered-down compromise over whether gays and lesbians could serve in the military, “don’t ask, don’t tell” left many mad with him and few particularly pleased with the outcome.
Clinton also stalled on his legislative agenda while moving away from a middle-class tax cut that he had promised in the campaign. His approval ratings fell from 64% in February 1993 to about 37% in May 1993.
One month later, Time magazine ran a cover story calling Clinton the “Incredible Shrinking President.” One of his more experienced advisers, Vernon Jordan, complained that “There’s nobody over there that’s ever worked in the White House before.”
But Clinton and Reagan recovered and each went on to have pretty successful runs in Washington. Reagan bounced back following his physical recovery from the assassination attempt by pushing a historic supply-side tax cut through Congress in the summer of 1981. It energized Republicans and created a foundation for him to move forward with other policies including massive increases in defense spending.
While he would continue to experience difficult moments, such as the large Democratic gains in the 1982 midterm elections and the Iran-Contra scandal, he went on to become an iconic president.
It took Clinton longer to recover. His budget in the summer of 1993, which increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy, was a long-term policy success in terms of reducing the deficit, but caused enormous turmoil as conservatives labeled him as a big government liberal in hiding.
Like Trump’s, Clinton’s initial health care plan failed. The blow helped Republicans retake control of both chambers of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. During his second term, the House voted to impeach him in December 1998 for perjury over an extramarital affair. Yet Clinton did survive and enjoyed two terms with skyrocketing approval ratings and achievements on issues such as deficit reduction, counterterrorism and health care that remain central.
Can President Trump do the same? Clearly it is possible that he could end up more like Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter, meaning that the problems he is experiencing will not go away and that he will be a one-term president – at most.
With a major scandal looming over the White House involving possible collusion between his campaign and Russia, the possibilities for this presidency to spin out of control remain very real.
An emboldened House Freedom Caucus and Democratic minority, is not going to make things any easier for this President, and it seems that the investigation into Russia-gate is about to ramp up. Constituents opposed to Trump, who have a taste of victory after protesting Republican town hall meetings, will have that much more determination to take on the rest of his agenda.
But his opponents should also be cognizant that Trump does have the ability to rebound. The Russia scandal could easily turn out to be more like Iran-Contra, where an explosive and devastating investigation never quite reaches the president himself and where the targets of the investigation are able to frame the issue as being about overly partisan inquisitors undermining national security.
Democrats might also conclude that any attempt to remove Trump from office through impeachment would be self-defeating, since Vice President Mike Pence is very conservative and is more likely to work well with the Freedom Caucus on policies the left would strongly oppose.
If Trump can get his act together, he could push for legislation, such as some kind of bold infrastructure plan, that would make it much more difficult for all Democrats and non-Freedom Caucus Republicans to oppose.
This would create the potential for a bipartisan victory, remaking himself into an independent and breaking through some of the partisan alliances that have thus far held firm. Trump, whose tweets this week went after the Freedom Caucus, has the potential to weaken the group, a key source of obstruction in Congress since 2010, and that could appeal to Democrats.
A crafty Trump could do this while continuing to move forward with his very aggressive deregulatory agenda, combined with a Reaganesque supply side tax cut, that keeps Republicans as a whole happy with having him in the White House. This would be a one-two punch that would quickly put Democrats on the defensive.
Trump, who is still doing well in polling with Republicans, can continue to offer his base of supporters red meat with renewed attacks on illegal immigrants and a push for “law and order” in the cities. The conservative part of his populism has been a big selling point and he has proven to have the capacity to play to the darkest elements of the right wing.
Trump can still, in the words of Steve Bannon, “deconstruct the administrative state.” It’s untrue that Obamacare will “explode” on its own, but Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price can do enormous damage to this fragile program, making it less effective and less appealing in the coming years. For instance, he could lower the cost-sharing subsidies that insurers have relied on, a step which would create instability in markets.
Trump can slowly build a stronger coalition for change by making the Affordable Care Act seem worse to most voters.
As Steve Rattner wrote, “if the effectiveness of the A.C.A is diminished … Rest assured that the Republicans will try to blame Obamacare’s supporters.”
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This is really an “it can go either way” moment for Trump. His next step is crucial. The problems he faces are very real, while the progress that he has made on certain issues and the potential to break through the current challenges are equally significant.
Part of the answer to the story will rest, not so much with Trump, but with what his opponents do in the coming months and whether they are able to capitalize on the vulnerabilities and instabilities that have been exposed in the White House as a result of the ACA fiasco.
His opponents should be aware, however, that just as big loss in politics sets the groundwork for more losses by allowing opponents to see all your vulnerability, one big win can create the political momentum that gives presidents a chance to move on with other issues and even win re-election.