Time to Put Up or Shut Up

FDR ruined things for the presidents who would follow him. It was those first hundred days – starting on March 4, 1933 – but not really. Roosevelt closed the entire American banking system on March 6, 1933 – two days later – and then on March 9, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, which Roosevelt used to create federal deposit insurance when the banks reopened – and then the first stock-trading day after the bank holiday ended with largest-ever one-day percentage price increase in stocks. There were no more runs on the banks. The economy stabilized, at a much lower level, but it stabilized.

That was the start of those first one hundred days. By the end of those first one hundred days, working with Congress, Roosevelt created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and got Congress to pass the National Industry Recovery Act (NIRA) and create the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – the building blocks of the New Deal. Louisiana’s governor, Huey Long, said that Roosevelt hadn’t been doing enough for the little guy, but Huey Long was always a bit nutty. Roosevelt had done plenty, for everyone, all in one hundred days. Oh, and in his spare time, Roosevelt started those “fireside chats” – those weekly radio addresses to calm the nation. Things were bad. Things were awful. But things could be fixed, and things were being fixed, and he could prove that. The nation held together.

That’s a tough act to follow, and it set a rather odd arbitrary benchmark – the first one hundred days of the presidency – the time to put up or shut up. Those who get at least a few things done in those first one hundred days are considered successful – not Roosevelt-successful but doing okay. Those who don’t get squat done in those first one hundred days are considered total losers – that’s the mark of a failed presidency. They may recover and do wonderful things, but that’s considered unlikely. Those first one hundred days tell the story.

That’s unfair but now that’s a given. Barack Obama’s presidency began with his inauguration on January 20, 2009, and his economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in the House on January 28 and the Senate on February 10 – and there was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) and new ethics guidelines to curtail the influence of lobbyists in the executive branch and lifting the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – and he ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay. Well, that last one didn’t work out, but he had said this – “The first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference.” Obamacare came the next year. He didn’t think much of the FDR timeline thing, but he had no reason to hang his head in shame. After all, the Tea-Party-fortified Republicans tried to ruin everything Obama touched. They failed. Obama’s first one hundred days were fine.

And then there’s Donald Trump:

President Trump on Thursday insisted he’s had “one of the most successful” starts as president in U.S. history, dismissing the chaos and stalled legislative agenda that has marred his first 100 days in office.

“I think we’ve had one of the most successful thirteen weeks in the history of the presidency,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One.

The president cited positive numbers on job creation, negotiations on presidential aircraft prices and his planned military buildup.

That was last week, and this is this week, as reported by Shane Goldmacher at Politico:

The symbolic 100-day mark by which modern presidents are judged menaces for an image-obsessed chief executive whose opening sprint has been marred by legislative stumbles, legal setbacks, senior staff kneecapping one another, the resignation of his national security adviser and near-daily headlines and headaches about links to Russia.

The date, April 29, hangs over the West Wing like the sword of Damocles as the unofficial deadline to find its footing – or else.

But however real Trump’s frustrations are with the three rival power centers he has installed – chief of staff Reince Priebus, son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon – top officials inside and around the White House don’t expect Trump to make any drastic changes until after 100 days, lest staff-turmoil stories swamp a key stretch of media coverage.

Yeah, the repeal of Obamacare, and its replacement with something or other, went down in flames, and the travel ban was killed by the courts, then rewritten, and killed by the courts again. There’s been no legislation, so of course the folks at the White House are on edge:

“One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially 2 1/2 weeks to turn everything around,” said one White House official. “This is going to be a monumental task.”

For a president who often begins and ends his days imbibing cable news, the burden has fallen heavily on a press team that recognizes that how well it sells Trump’s early tenure in the media will likely color the president’s appetite for an internal shake-up.

It was time to scrabble, and that’s just what they did:

More than 30 Trump staffers piled into a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjoining the White House on Tuesday, according to a half-dozen attendees who described the meeting.

Mike Dubke, Trump’s communications director, and his deputy, Jessica Ditto, kicked off the discussion of how to package Trump’s tumultuous first 100 days by pitching the need for a “rebranding” to get Trump back on track.

“I think the president’s head would explode if he heard that,” one of the White House officials present said.

That’s the cool thing about Politico. Everyone in the White House leaks to them, behind Trump’s back, but there’s also something comic here. Dubke and Ditto sounds like a fourth-rate law firm, or a vaudeville act, and this had the feel of a vaudeville act:

Staffers, including counselor Kellyanne Conway, were broken into three groups, complete with whiteboards, markers and giant butcher-block-type paper to brainstorm lists of early successes. One group worked in the hallway.

“It made me feel like I was back in fifth grade,” complained another White House aide who was there. “That’s the best way I could describe it.”

It’s all fifth grade stuff:

Dubke, who did not work on the campaign, told the assembled aides that international affairs would present a messaging challenge because the president lacks a coherent foreign policy. Three days later, Trump would order missile strikes in Syria in a reversal after years of opposition to such intervention.

“There is no Trump doctrine,” Dubke declared.

Some in the room were stunned by the remark.

“It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,” said a third White House official in the room, “He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.”

One of the administration officials lamented, “We’ve got a communications team supposedly articulating the president’s message [that] does not appear to understand the president’s message.”

Yeah, well, no one understands the message, and those that might were elsewhere:

As most of Trump’s senior team – Cabinet members, military and economic advisers, Bannon, Priebus, Kushner and White House press secretary Sean Spicer – went to Mar-a-Lago last week for the bilateral meeting with China amid the unfolding Syrian situation, Dubke was conspicuously absent and back in D.C.

“That would tell you exactly how he is perceived,” said one of the White House officials.

However, another White House official defended Dubke’s internal role, saying that before his arrival people in the press operation were “doing whatever they wanted to do without a broader set of goals being defined.” Dubke imposed structure, “and that’s going to ruffle some feathers.”

Still, the more sympathetic aide to Dubke admitted, “He has not yet integrated into the senior leadership.”

He just has to explain senior leadership and make them look good, while blindfolded, as the chaos swirls:

The constant palace intrigue and internal jockeying has left the White House in a state of paralysis.

Trump parted with deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh in late March, his aides are discussing reorganization, and Trump himself has begun floating names to replace Priebus for feedback, according to a person close to the White House. On Friday, Trump ordered his two other senior-most advisers, Kushner and Bannon, to settle their differences in a Mar-a-Lago sit-down after a week of their increasing shadowboxing through anonymous accusations in the press.

One White House official last week questioned why Bannon was taking on a member of Trump’s family so openly.

“For a Svengali, that doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do,” the official said. “I don’t think that ends well for him.”

But that’s not the real problem:

Trump aides are grappling with the reality that they will end this opening period with no significant legislative achievements other than rolling back Obama-era regulations. Even the White House’s most far-reaching success, the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, required the Senate rewriting its own rules to overcome Democratic opposition.

Though the White House continues to push for progress on stalled health care legislation, there are only five legislative days remaining once Congress returns from a two-week spring break. Plus, another deadline looms: Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress must still pass a bill before April 28 to keep the government running.

If they fail, a shutdown would begin on Trump’s 100th day in office.

That would be called a Reverse Roosevelt if this were a figure skating competition, which it isn’t. This is a nightmare, and that calls for an impassioned told-you-so rant from one of the Never-Trump Republicans, like the Republican consultant Rick Wilson with this:

The story has become not about the president’s goals, policies, or accomplishments, but a group of people around him who make the Borgias look like the Brady Bunch.

Trump is faced with terrible options when it comes to rearranging the deck chairs on the SS White House, and those of us who warned you this was inevitable are ordering popcorn. The cancer in the presidency isn’t his staff – though they reflect his shoddy intellect, his shallow impulsiveness, his loose grasp of reality, and Chinese-menu ideology. The problem is Trump himself, and nothing and no one can change that.

Trump simply made very bad choices:

Let’s start with the leader of the Pepe Army sleeper cell at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Steve Bannon. If Trump keeps his chief strategist, he keeps the poisonous, post-conservative nationalism and thinly-veiled racial and religious animus that helped put him in the Oval Office. Bannon was great at running a conspiracy blog, but his political instincts are those of an arsonist, not a strategist. He has led Trump into a series of unforced political debacles, tainted relations with Congress, and alienated members of America’s new royal family.

He’s already become persona non grata in Congress for his absurdly villainous performance trying unsuccessfully to browbeat them into accepting the ludicrously unpopular Trumpcare bill, and his economic nationalism is big-government statism wrapped in populist trade and industrial policies. Bannon is a famous brawler, and like many brawlers after too many beers, he lashes out any anyone for looking at him funny. A Bannon power center in the White House is as dangerous as its vacuum.

If he fires Bannon, Trump should prepare for war.

Do that and expect the wrath of the Breitbart world, and more:

If Bannon is cut loose, the old Washington adage of “better to have your enemy inside the tent pissing out” will come into play. The coverage of Trump in the Bannon/Mercer echo chamber will go from “gushing hagiography” to “more in sorrow than in anger” to “Trump is now a globalist cuck shill for the ZOG” faster than Andrew Breitbart can rotate in his grave.

Another reason firing Bannon is fraught with risk: Bannon is running the Russia pushback operation from inside the White House. He’s up to his ample ass in the Nunes shenanigan with NSC staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick and White House Counsel’s Office staffer Mike Ellis. Bannon doesn’t just want to protect Trump over the Russia allegations; he wants to protect Russia, a nation he sees as an essential ally in his new alliance of white Christian nations against the Muslim horde. Does Trump really want Bannon, angry and in the wind, declaring his own jihad?

Obviously not, but Jared Kushner is just as big a problem:

Elevating his son-in-law to Ambassador Plenipotentiary for Everything and Czar of All U.S. Government Programs is already straining credulity. Other than an accident of marriage and birth, Kushner isn’t regarded as particularly shining intellect, a masterful leader, or a man of any particularly notable ideological standards. He’s the son of a New York billionaire married to Trump’s daughter, and that’s really about all he brings to the table.

That’s not enough:

Teacher’s pet types emerge in every organization. The leader will take a shine to a person of particular talent or ability, and elevate them faster than the norm. It’s one thing when that person actually has talent and ability. In that case, other team members will see it with grumbling admiration, even if they don’t like it. In Kushner’s case, accomplished, smart people who have managed more than their daddy’s real-estate company will look at him as being elevated on the basis of his marriage, not his ability.

Kushner already has so many titles, assignments, and projects that it would be impossible for even an experienced manager and leader with a staff of hundreds to manage them. He’s never managed projects even close to the scale of what Trump has ladled onto his plate, and it’s going to show. The death will be from a thousand tiny cuts, but politically fatal in the end. In addition, Trump requires Kushner’s presence so frequently that I’m surprised Jared doesn’t have a cot outside Donald’s bedroom door.

Trump won’t cut him loose either, and then there’s his chief of staff:

 Replacing Reince Priebus, a process-driven, mainline conservative before he sipped the sweet, sweet Kool-Aid of Trumpism, is another option. The chief of staff may stay. The chief of staff may go. The question is, would anyone notice?

Priebus is an administrator in an administration led by a man with little interest in his ministers and none at all in being managed himself. You can see the former party chairman desperately trying to put up guardrails and establish lanes and to staff the administration with something other than ex-Breitbart “reporters.” One of his jobs was to be the Washington Whisperer for Trump, and in the wake of the Trumpcare debacle, and the fact that Trump’s entire legislative agenda is in limbo, it’s plain that whatever he’s whispering isn’t penetrating.

In short, Reince Priebus doesn’t matter at all, but then there’s no one else who would take the job: 

Some of the people mentioned are smart, competent folks with decades of experience in the folkways and traditions of D.C. Some know how to manage large, complex operations. Here’s the problem; no White House chief of staff can change Trump’s essential character. No White House chief of staff can set up a chain of reporting and accountability for a man who is driven almost entirely by the need to draw every particle of praise and adoration into the event horizon of the black hole of his boundless, hungry ego.

A strong, effective chief of staff would be of enormous benefit to this president, but so would be avoiding Kentucky Fried Chicken, early morning tweet frenzies, and twenty hours of Fox News every day.

The last scenario that will also cause an explosion in the Trump base is if the president who blasted Goldman Sachs relentlessly allows the Vampire Squid’s friendly takeover of the Oval Office to come to fruition. With Gary Cohn as a widely discussed replacement for Priebus, and with a host of Goldman alumni staffing senior positions, Trump will have a circle of advisers who are more liberal, more (ahem) globalist, more comfortable with regulation and crony capitalism, and who believe that what’s Good for Goldman Is Good for America. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this will play with Trump’s lower-middle class base of the economically fragile, to say nothing of the conspiracy media.

There’s no way out here: 

As long as Trump is president, there will never be a pivot. There is no better version of Trump, simply waiting for the right org chart or the right staffer.

I’m always struck with how a simple phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson captures politics over time, and how it captures the Trump administration perfectly.

That phrase? “An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man.”

It seems that Trump’s first one hundred days will end in shadow, and Adam Gopnik explores those shadows:

Perhaps the most tragic sins against democracy, to which we have already become accustomed, are Trump’s lies. When you have a President who lies as he breathes, for whom lying is simply the normal way of dealing with any difficulty, democratic governance becomes close to impossible. We all forgive fantasy, storytelling, self-justification, faulty memory, mythological insistence. America has survived them all. But telling malicious and scurrilous lies without remorse or regret is a venom that paralyzes the entire political system, for the simple reason that democratic politics are really just a proceduralized form of argument – my evidence here, yours there; our side’s claim like this, yours like that – and when lies are the first premise, the back-and-forth of rational contention becomes impossible.

No sane response is possible to an egregious lie except silence, and silence lets the lie win. Trump accuses Barack Obama of wiretapping him, an obvious lie, but the lie becomes part of the fabric of the event, to be adjudicated rather than exploded. He blithely says that he thinks Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, may have committed a crime, and Rice, playing by rules that were suspended three months ago, says that she “won’t dignify” the remark with a counter-remark. The appeal to dignity is the classic appeal of those who live in an honor society where conduct and credibility are assumed to be inseparable.

We are three months past dignity now. That’s the tragedy, and it has already happened.

And that may explain why nothing has gotten done – nothing can get done – but looking a one single issue, Michael Gerson sees things differently:

During the campaign, Donald Trump opposed entitlement reform, yet his health-care bill contained the most fundamental entitlement reform – moving federal Medicaid spending from an open-ended match for state spending to a capped amount per person – that Congress has recently considered. He campaigned as a tribune for the working class, yet his economic approach seems heavily tilted toward the interests of the wealthy.

This has been attacked as lying. It also indicates a complete unfamiliarity with the issues and debates at the heart of American politics. He never encountered these matters during previous government service (which he did none of). He was not forced to explain his views during primary or general election debates (a few lines from the stump speech more than sufficed). Trump was not hiding an inner sophistication. His ignorance was presented as part of an anti-establishment package – as contempt for the quibbles of smaller men.

And now it’s time to put up or shut up. The first one hundred days end soon. But perhaps having something to show for those first one hundred days is one of those quibbles of smaller men. Or he’s simply a small man.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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