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Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: President Trump has had a rocky first 100 days in office

But he isn't the first president to struggle early on, and he can rebound if he learns from his mistakes, writes Zelizer

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.

(CNN) —  

Last night, President Trump sounded like candidate Trump. Although there have been some indications that Trump is starting to adjust to the realities of being president, his speech to his followers in Pennsylvania returned to all of his standard campaign themes.

“The media deserves a very big, fat, failing grade” for how it has covered him. He didn’t care about the White House correspondents’ dinner, where a “large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media” were sitting around “consoling each other in a hotel ballroom.” And his critics can’t stop him from building the wall: “Don’t worry, we’re going to have the wall. Don’t even worry about it,” he said.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Given his rally speech, it doesn’t seem the President is going to do much to change his ways. That would be a mistake, given that history shows that presidents can bounce back from a rough first 100 days.

In fact, there is a long history of presidents who have recovered from troubled debuts.

Kennedy’s first 100 days

Take President John F. Kennedy, who did not have a great beginning to his presidency. The southern Democrats who controlled Congress displayed no interest in working with this young upstart from Massachusetts.

And as momentum on a domestic agenda stalled, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961 proved to be a huge embarrassment for the nation and for Kennedy. The failed military invasion of Cuba orchestrated by a group organized by the CIA seemed to prove that Kennedy’s critics were right: He couldn’t handle the pressures of the Cold War.

But Kennedy adjusted. Although there wasn’t much he could do on the domestic front, because southern Democrats were unwilling to work with him, he learned to be more skeptical about what military advisers told him and to be dubious that military action was always the best step forward.

When his administration faced a showdown with the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy’s tempered and cautious approach helped to produce a historic diplomatic resolution that saved the world from nuclear war. He also figured out ways to think big with ideas that would be harder for congressional conservatives to oppose.

On May 25, 1961, he promised to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, capturing the imagination of an entire generation of Americans who believed in the promise that scientific discovery could offer.

Reagan’s first 100 days

President Ronald Reagan didn’t enjoy his first few months in office, either. When he pushed for a bold budgetary program that would cut taxes and slash spending, he encountered more resistance than he anticipated. Although his 1980 victory over President Jimmy Carter gave him a conservative mandate, Democrats in Congress had enough muscle to defend the social safety net.

He also ran into opposition within his party. Fiscal conservatives in the GOP did not believe that Reagan’s “supply-side” tax cuts would generate enough money over time to cover the huge deficits that they would create (“Voodoo economics,” as George H.W. Bush called the idea when he ran against Reagan in the primaries).

But Reagan came back with a vengeance. As he recovered from a failed assassination attempt on March 30, he put all of his political capital into the tax cut, and his approval ratings soared. He went on the airwaves to appeal directly to voters, the White House put together an aggressive lobbying effort, and Reagan personally placed immense pressure on members of Congress to pass the bill.

The Democrats conceded, adding tax cuts of their own, while Republican opponents faded away. In what was then an unusual move, the administration used the budget reconciliation process to move the bill through the Senate, avoiding the threat of a filibuster. The result was a signature victory in the summer of 1981, which remains for conservatives a defining accomplishment of Reagan’s tenure.

Clinton’s first 100 days

President Bill Clinton’s supporters were likewise singing the blues when his inaugural 100 days came to an end. After a series of widely-publicized scandals and a struggle to find the right person to be Attorney General (his first two picks didn’t work), even Democrats wondered if he knew how to handle the job.

The 1993 fiasco in Waco, Texas, where a standoff between federal agents and a cult led by David Koresh ended with the deaths of 76 people, had conservatives up in arms about the actions of the Justice Department while Democrats were unhappy with the administration’s seeming incompetence.

Clinton’s campaign promise to push for a deficit reduction plan that raised taxes burdened the middle class and was seen as problematic. His compromise on whether gay Americans could serve in the military – “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – angered activists on the left as well as conservatives. And his decision to push for NAFTA left House Democrats feeling betrayed.

“The first hundred days of Bill Clinton’s presidency have diminished public expectations that he — or anyone else in Washington — can do much to turn around a country that seven out of 10 voters think is going in the wrong direction,” noted Dan Balz and David Broder in The Washington Post.

Although he did achieve a few victories by learning how to strike back against Republican opponents, much of the next year remained equally controversial and difficult.

But Clinton did push through the largest federal crime legislation in American history. It provided funding for crime-prevention programs and implemented a ban on assault weapons, which pleased liberals,while pouring more funds into law enforcement and pushing for tougher sentencing, which pleased conservatives.

None of this was enough to overwhelm the fierce opposition to his health care plan (in which first lady Hillary Clinton played a leadership role), yet it showed that he was gaining a feel for how to deal with Congress.

That would prove pivotal to President Clinton’s political success after Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 midterms. He went on to win reelection in 1996 and ended his presidency with skyrocketing approval ratings.

Learning how to succeed

Over time, presidents who learn their lessons can succeed. The question is whether President Trump has been spending time in the political classroom. Although there is some evidence he is changing course, such as his reversals on such controversial policies as his campaign stance against China, the verdict is still out.

There are still many indications that Trump is deeply resistant to change. The temperament that he has shown throughout his career has been one of stubbornness. His utter lack of experience in government might make it more difficult for him to see where and how he needs to adjust to the realities of Washington.

Even though he is dealing with a Republican Congress, passing his legislative agenda may still prove challenging. There’s been infighting among Republicans, and Trump has gotten major pushback from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whom he blames for the collapse of his health care bill. And Democrats are in no mood to cooperate with Trump, whose rhetoric and proposals have been antithetical to their core values.

President Trump must learn he needs to broaden his support to build a legislative record that could define his presidency.

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At a minimum, he will need to adjust his style of communication and devote more attention and effort to the legislative process. He will have to contain those fiery tweets, and bring more people into his inner circle who have political experience and savvy. And he needs to instill in himself and his closest advisers more discipline in dealing with domestic and foreign policy problems.

Otherwise, the problems he has encountered in his first 100 days will only become magnified, and the outcome for Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections might prove more devastating than anything they can imagine.