The idea that a US president’s first 100 days in office should be decisive goes back to Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. He entered the White House at the height of the Great Depression and launched a bombardment of emergency measures to revive the economy.
“For a deceptive moment in 1933, clouds of inertia and selfishness seemed to lift,” wrote the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “A despairing land had a vision of America as it might be.”
During Donald Trump’s first hundred days, the clouds of inertia and selfishness have closed in further. He has been dashing out executive orders, but many were symbolic or ineffective, like the ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The proposal backed by the White House to replace Barack Obama’s system of healthcare insurance was blocked by a handful of ultra-conservative Republican members of the House of Representatives.
On his 100th day last weekend Trump was cheered by supporters at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to have the wall.”
But funding for the wall disappeared from the agreement he made with Congressional leaders to keep the US government in money.
The problem isn’t just that the Republican Party is divided. So too is the Trump administration.
The Harrisburg rally, deep in the “rust belt”, demonstrated his preoccupation with keeping his base onside—so far successfully with 96 percent of Trump voters backing him.
He and key aides such as Peter Navarro and Stephen Bannon want to use trade deals to create US jobs.
Last weekend the Financial Times newspaper revealed a draft executive order pulling the US out of the North American Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Canada and Mexico.
“Any trade agreement signed by the US needed to ‘increase America’s economic growth’ and US wages while also decreasing the trade deficit the US has run with the world since the 1970s, the draft order declares.
“It also should ‘strengthen’ the US ‘manufacturing and defence industrial bases’. It is the policy of this Administration to renegotiate, or withdraw from, every trade agreement that does not serve the interests of the US.”
The executive order wasn’t issued because of opposition from key figures such as commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. He argued that pulling out of Nafta would hit the US economy badly.
Similarly, Trump told the Harrisburg rally that he’d reneged on his promise to declare China a currency manipulator because he needs its help over North Korea.
But there are plenty of other signs the administration is moving in a protectionist direction. Vice president Mike Pence visited South Korea to deliver the rather contradictory message. He said the US would stand alongside its government against North Korea, but also wants to renegotiate the trade agreement between the two countries.
Meanwhile, there are growing trade frictions with Canada and Trump has ordered a “national security” investigation of steel imports that could easily lead to the clash with China that he has so far backed away from.
It’s impossible to say yet who will win out in these internal disputes. But the tax “reform” Trump announced last week is pretty unambiguous. The Tax Policy Centre estimates that the top 0.1 percent of the population would enjoy a tax cut of over 14 percent of after-tax income, much more than other income groups.
Another think tank, the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the Financial Times that “at least £1.5 trillion of the £4.5 trillion cost of the new tax package would benefit the top tier of American households … more than half of the £1.5 trillion value of the cut in the corporate tax rate to 15 percent would flow to households in the top 1 percent—handing them annual tax cuts of £77,000 each.”
In other words, when it comes to tax Trump looks like a traditional Republican president, shoving money into the pockets of the rich. It will be interesting to see how the people who cheered him in Harrisburg last weekend will react when they discover this.