Donald Trump vs. Barack Obama at 100-Day Mark

President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

How does President Donald Trump’s presidency stack up against his predecessor 100 days in? Obviously, that’s a highly subjective question, since an observer who disagrees strongly with Trump’s policy agenda will find little reason to applaud his “successes,” and likewise with critics of Obama. We can compare a few metrics between the two presidencies, however.

Neither president kept all of his campaign promises for the first 100 days: We might as well get this out of the way first. Both Trump and Obama (and the majority of their predecessors) complained that the 100 days standard of judging presidencies was arbitrary, a silly media tradition dating back to FDR’s impossible-to-replicate burst of post-inaugural activity.

Trump called it “ridiculous” last week and complained that no matter what he accomplishes by day 100, the media will “kill” him with bad coverage.

Obama more mildly objected that “it’s probably going to be the first 1,000 days that makes the difference.” His White House murmured that more time was needed to complete his big projects while collecting applause from a media that most certainly were not looking to “kill” his nascent presidency.

Even as they complain about the arbitrary 100 days anniversary, presidential candidates often use it as a convenient shorthand to impress voters with their highest priorities. Candidate Trump was no exception, touting a “Contract with the American Voter” that made a specific set of promises for his first 100 days. It was a sizable list, with 18 promises in all.

His grade on fulfilling those promises is mixed, with some clear successes, some serious efforts still in progress, a few sincere efforts that did not work out (such as suspending immigration from terrorism-prone regions) and some complete whiffs (labeling China a currency manipulator, proposing a term-limits amendment.) Trump’s critics argue that he has no standing to complain about the 100-days deadline because he embraced it himself in his “Contract with the American Voter.”

Barack Obama made a vastly larger number of promises for his first 100 days. According to an April 2009 review of his first hundred days from PolitiFact, Obama made more than 500 promises, kept 27 of them, had another 63 “solidly in the works,” and explicitly broke six of them. Of course, if Obama made 500 promises and clearly kept or “solidly” worked on 90 of them, that’s a lot more than six unfulfilled promises at the 100-days mark. One suspects the media will not give the Trump administration as much benefit of the doubt for what they have “solidly in the works.”

The Chicago Tribune went beyond Trump’s campaign “contract” to compile a list of 38 promises for the first 100 days, ruling that he has fulfilled only ten of them. Sure enough, this critique gives Trump no credit for the items he is still working on, even when it is clear his efforts are serious.

Approval ratings: There is no question Obama had much higher approval ratings at the 100-day mark. Trump polls at 39 to 44 percent approval as he approaches the 100-day mark, with a RealClearPolitics polling average of 42 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove. As the media are quick to point out, this is the lowest approval rating of any president ever polled at the 100-days threshold.

By contrast, President Obama had approval ratings of around 65 percent at the 100 day-point. According to Gallup, Obama fared only slightly better with voters of his own party at the end of his first quarter but polled much better among the opposition. Trump is reportedly polling almost 20 points worse with Democrats than any previous president has polled with members of the opposition party.

The relationship between 100-days polling and the success of a presidency is an open question. Bill Clinton had mediocre poll numbers after 100 days, but he won reelection handily in 1996. Barack Obama was reelected as well, but his party got creamed in both of his midterm elections and remains in mournful shape today.

Trump himself noted that his 100-days polling suggests most of his voters still support him; he could make the case that his poor overall approval rating is a result of Democrats being whipped into a frenzy against him.

Another interesting artifact of Trump’s polls is that, according to the survey taken by ABC News and the Washington Post, he would win the 2016 election again if it were held after 100 days … and this time, he would beat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote as well.

The pollsters explained this by saying Clinton has actually become less popular since the election, despite frantic left-wing attempts to idolize her. As Trump pointed out, he would retain the vast majority of his support, but many Clinton voters said they would choose someone else if they could vote again.

Major achievements: The key to Trump’s recovery from his low poll numbers lies in banking major achievements he can present to voters in concert with an improving economy. History suggests that a president who can tout significant achievements against a backdrop of strong job creation and rising GDP will be a formidable opponent, no matter how passionately his opponents hate him.

Democrats know this, which is one reason they have been putting so much effort into thwarting Trump’s upfront agenda items, using everything from foot-dragging on Trump administration appointees to activist judges. They needed to create a broad public impression that Trump is not getting anything done, and it seems to have worked, since the public perception of slow progress is widely cited as a major reason for his low poll numbers.

Defining “major achievements” is a tricky business. Every administration naturally wants to pad its 100-day report card with minute accomplishments that have barely perceptible effects on the lives of American voters. Major achievements would be actions that matter, remembered well beyond the second and third 100 days.

The press gave President Obama a great deal of credit for a busy first 100 days – but President Trump has actually signed twice as many bills as Obama did at this point. Granted, one of Obama’s bills was the titanic American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, i.e., the “stimulus bill,” worth $787 billion all by itself. Political partisans will argue until the end of days about how much of an “achievement” the stimulus bill was, but no one can deny it spent a great deal of money.

Aside from the stimulus, what noteworthy accomplishments did Obama’s 100 days have? It’s instructive to watch Newsweek trip over itself in the effort to condemn Trump’s first quarter as “underwhelming,” then admit he signed more legislation than Obama did.

Newsweek ends up mumbling something about how Obama’s early days are “considered productive because they include major legislation to ensure children in low-income households have health insurance as well as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which fights wage discrimination.” That’s rather different from the standard media line that Obama’s early days were incredibly productive.

Obama’s glowing 100-days media coverage was mostly about his style, celebrity star power, and historic identity as the first black president. Both in 2009 and today, his admirers assert that he had a great first quarter, but they cannot come up with much that he actually did besides the stimulus bill.

Obama White House advisers were pushing a list of 100-days accomplishments to the press in April 2009. It gets pretty thin after the stimulus bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, lifting restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, and expanding children’s health care with a huge cigarette tax increase.

“Setting a fixed timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq” was listed as a major achievement. Leaving aside the consequences of Obama’s withdrawal, because we should not consider anything that happened after the first 100 days in this analysis, merely “setting a timetable” is a bureaucratic exercise, not a historic accomplishment. The Trump White House could easily claim it has set all sorts of “fixed timetables” before the hundred-day mark, too.

“Forge a meaningful statement from the United Nations criticizing North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile?” “Engaging world leaders in Europe, Turkey, Latin America and the Caribbean with ‘strength and humility?’” This is a list from Obama’s own advisers, and they had to throw in gaseous claims about “engaging world leaders” (grimly hilarious in retrospect) to make it look impressive.

Trump’s appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a huge and concrete accomplishment. In fairness, Obama had no comparable opportunity to fill a Supreme Court seat in his first 100 days.

The Trump White House is boasting of its success in rolling back onerous Obama legislation. Critics say every president does that, but Marc Thiessen argues that the economy-choking weight of the rules Trump is killing really does add up to a significant achievement: “Rolling back the wet blanket of regulations smothering our economy is critical to restoring job creation in the United States – and Trump is acting decisively to do so.”

Thiessen also argues that Trump’s enforcing Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons by bombing Syria, dropping the MOAB on ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, and confronting North Korea are major 100-days achievements. Afghanistan and North Korea are still very much works in progress, but at the 100-day mark, Trump’s action against the Syrian regime does appear to have gotten some results.

Byron York at the Washington Examiner dings Trump for falling well behind on promised legislation and walking back or vacillating on some important campaign promises, but he credits Trump with a few more significant achievements: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), getting the Keystone XL pipeline underway at last, significantly reducing the flow of illegal aliens into the U.S., even as the future of his border wall remains in doubt, and issuing a deregulation order that aims to knock out two federal regulations for every new one added to the books.

(On that last point, it should be noted that the Trump order only requires the identification of two superfluous regulations for every new one added, but it does not force their elimination. It remains to be seen what effect this actually has on the size of the federal code.)

The public perception of ennui around the Trump White House is partially driven by the initiatives that failed during the first 100 days, notably Obamacare repeal and Trump’s executive orders to limit immigration from certain security-risk countries. Obama, in contrast, did not have comparable negative stories pulling down his 100-days celebration. Realistically, failed efforts do not cancel out achievements, but many poll respondents are probably thinking more about Trump’s fumbles than his field goals and touchdowns at this moment.

Trump still has a few days on the clock at the time of this writing, so a few more significant executive orders could slide in under the wire. For instance, with three days to go, he signed an executive order to review designations under the Antiquities Act (i.e. national monuments), which supporters believe will open a great deal of land to development and end the federal government’s “War on the West.” It could be difficult to judge the full scope of this action by day 100. 

Press Coverage: Of course, Obama got far better press coverage than Trump. Trump and his supporters will be inclined to blame this coverage for his subpar poll numbers on the 100-days anniversary, but as noted, those numbers are more a function of energized, enraged Democrats than Trump’s voters losing heart because the press cannot say anything good about him.

Trump has, to put it mildly, fostered a far more adversarial relationship with the press than Obama did. The result appears to be an erosion of popular support for both the Trump administration and the media. The long-term results of Trump’s pugilistic strategy toward the press remain to be seen, but it is not surprising that one of the short-term results is a shortage of soft-focus 100-days coverage. No one in the press is likely to ask Donald Trump what he finds most enchanting about the presidency.

Obama and his team definitely managed the spin and showmanship around the hundred-days anniversary better. Look back at April 2009 news reports, and you will see an orchestrated ballet of spin. Thus far, the current White House media operation has not promoted Trump’s record as effectively as Thiessen and York did in their articles, even though both of them also included criticism that no White House would level at itself.

Personnel management: Delays in staffing the Trump administration have been longer than any of his six predecessors. He still has more than 550 vacancies to fill that require Senate confirmation and has not named anyone for 475 of them. Almost two thousand more appointments that do not require confirmation are still unfilled.

President Trump has acknowledged the problem, blaming it partly on stonewalling by congressional Democrats. That would not explain the slow pace of filling positions that do not require confirmation, a delay critics have blamed on micromanagement by senior staff and White House turf wars, as well as the early loss of Trump’s transition director, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Most agencies of the Trump administration have implemented emergency strategies to deal with staffing shortages.

Obama handled staffing more smoothly, although it was not quite as smooth as his supporters prefer to remember. Several high-level Obama appointments failed or went sour quickly, including his Commerce and Health and Human Service secretaries. The final member of Obama’s cabinet, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, took office on day 99 of Obama’s presidency. Still, Obama sent about twice as many nominees to the Senate by his 100-day mark as Trump.

Stock market: The market rallied tremendously after Trump’s election, and it is still hitting milestones as the 100-day mark approaches. The Nasdaq Composite just broke 6,000 for the first time ever. The Dow Jones average broke 20,000 for the first time in January, and then hit a string of record highs after that. Consumer confidence hit a 16-year high in March.

Obama also had stock market rallies during his first 100 days (and after he was reelected.) His supporters would argue that his first quarter market rally was exceptionally significant because of the 2008 financial crisis, while detractors would note that it took a long time before the Obama economy began creating a significant number of jobs. Bipartisan cynics would question whether any president’s policies could meaningfully affect the economy within 100 days of his taking office.

Conclusion: Trump and Obama, like most of their predecessors, both made promises on the campaign trail for their first hundred days that they could not keep. Obama’s poll numbers and press coverage were far better, and his transition went more smoothly.

The significant achievements of both presidents in the first 100 days were arguably comparable, despite the impression of high productivity for Obama and few achievements for Trump. Clearly, no single order issued by Trump, much less a bill he worked through Congress and signed into law, compares to the scale of Obama’s stimulus bill, and Obama did not have a headline-devouring, party-dividing fiasco like the Obamacare repeal effort.

Obama also did not face anything like the campaign of damaging leaks from inside the Trump administration, and despite Obama’s subsequent years of complaining about the intransigence of congressional Republicans, he faced nothing like the furious Democrat “resistance” to Trump in his first three months.


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