PERHAPS the White House is beginning to understand the folly of simply claiming that everything is going fantastically well.
A senior official tried a new approach last week: He framed the chaos as the kind of work in progress that Silicon Valley celebrates.
“It’s a beta White House,” news outlet, Axios, wrote of the interview.
That’s unlikely. I think a better read is Dan Drezner’s analysis that US President Donald Trump is particularly bad at realising what he doesn’t know, and therefore will be particularly unable to improve things. And there’s no sign of improvement.
Still, the US president may wake up one morning soon and realise just how bad things are, and take action.
That’s what Bill Clinton did (well, not just in one day) after his own rough transition and first days in office, and he wound up with a well-regarded presidency, after a miserable start.
On the other hand, Jimmy Carter’s White House never operated very well, and his presidency never recovered from a poor start.
If Trump does take Clinton’s path, he’ll still have squandered two important resources: Time and reputation. The latter can be restored, although not easily; the former is just gone.
Yes, it’s only been 10-plus weeks lost, or about one fifth of one year of a four-year term.
But not all weeks are created equal for a president. There’s no upcoming election to distract everyone.
The US Congress is (normally) unusually receptive to a freshly-inaugurated president’s agenda.
Even when new presidents are not popular, it’s normal for many Americans to give them more leeway than they might later on.
The idea that the first 100 days are all-important is an exaggeration, but it’s based on some facts about how the presidency and Washington work. Early losses hurt the president’s reputation more than later ones.
Moreover, Trump is so far behind in so many ways that even a rapid improvement would still leave him in awful shape.
In the US Congress, within executive branch agencies, even within the White House, competition for the agenda grows more fiercely with the intervention of outside events and fixed deadlines (such as the need to keep the government funded and increase the debt limit).
This hardly means the president’s legislative chances are fully sunk. Clinton wound up with several wins, even after Republicans gained majorities in both chambers of Congress two years into his presidency. But Trump’s best chance is probably gone.
A large part of a US president’s ability to influence members of Congress, bureaucrats, state governments, interest groups, his party, and even judges is what Richard Neustadt called the president’s “professional reputation”.
This is what elites think of him, not voters as a whole.
What do they think of his ability to do his job? Can they rely on his word? Is he willing to fight hard for what he wants? Do his friends prosper and his enemies suffer?
As Neustadt says, the people the president deals with “must be convinced, in their own minds, that he has skill and will enough to use his advantages”.
Trump has, in just over 10 weeks, thoroughly destroyed his own professional reputation. He’s constantly backing down from positions he sets out forcefully.
And constantly, of course, failing to tell the truth. He demonstrates no mastery of policy, nor even basic competence. His own White House constantly leaks unflattering stories about him.
He’s even managed to squander, in record time, something all new presidents share: the vague notion that he must have some sort of magic touch for winning, even if it’s not obviously evident.
If his winning touch wasn’t lost to earlier setbacks on the travel ban and some of his personnel choices, Trump’s defeat over the healthcare bill buried it for good. He’s going to have to earn it back.
The Clinton example shows that a better professional reputation can be won. But it can come at a cost.
Clinton lost so many fights in his first two years that Republicans convinced themselves he could be rolled on anything, and many Democrats feared that was correct; it took two extended government shutdowns, in 1994-1995, for Clinton to change people’s minds.
To recover his reputation, and to avoid losing any further time, Trump would have to do what I, and others, have been urging upon him from the start: Bring in an experienced, capable chief-of-staff, and empower him or her to run the White House properly, and let go of the current leaders of the various factions within the presidency.
Even if Trump can’t clean up his own personal act, that would go a long way towards righting the ship.
Bill Clinton never did, after all, learn very much personal discipline, just as Ronald Reagan never learned the details of policy, but both of them often had a well-run White House, which could cover for the president’s weaknesses and allow him to utilise his strengths.