Trump’s Second Year Could Be Even Worse
On April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died. Having lasted a month, he is without question the president who had the grimmest first year in office. Donald Trump hasn’t bested that record, but he’s making a valiant push for the runner-up spot, for which he’ll have to edge out Ronald Reagan, who was shot, James Garfield, who was shot dead, and Abe Lincoln, who saw the nation descend into civil war.
In his first year, Trump has failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, failed to appoint enough staff to implement his policy agenda, seen multiple high-level staffers resign, seen his campaign investigated for its ties to Russia, and given that investigation greater heft by firing the FBI chief overseeing it. The swamp remains undrained, the wall is unbuilt, there is no major infrastructure plan. There is a new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch. And while some regulations have been eased, it’s cold comfort given how little progress he’s made elsewhere. The latest Gallup poll shows a third of the country approving of the job he’s doing; that could drop in coming days, especially after the indictment of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and a guilty plea from campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
Having entered office completely unprepared, Trump squandered his first year. Those failures will haunt him in the second. He barely has the staff he’d need to make policy, even if he had a coherent agenda, and he’s deeply alienated the allies in Congress he needs to pass legislation, who keep resigning and excoriating him on their way out the door.
Those who remain will rally around the president as best they can to do tax cuts, the one thing Trump and his estranged party still agree on. That would give the GOP an actual legislative achievement as congressional Republicans head into the midterms. But after that? Perhaps the Russia probe will dead-end at Manafort. Perhaps the GOP will come off of tax reform newly energized and proceed to attempt other major legislation—an infrastructure bill, a serious immigration reform. One can describe a scenario in which Trump recovers from his rookie mistakes and goes on to create policy. What one struggles to do is believe it.
More than likely, the second year of Trump’s presidency will look a lot like his first: shambolic, unfocused, and largely driven by external events. That’s troublesome on the domestic policy front, but it’s downright scary when it comes to foreign affairs, where Trump’s flaws—impulsivity, lack of preparation, and an unwillingness to listen to advisers—present the greatest dangers. We can’t predict what the crisis will be, only that if and when it arrives, we’re all in for sleepless nights. The physicist Niels Bohr is said to have remarked that predictions are hard, especially about the future. But Trump’s lack of vision or preparation has plunged the country into a sort of permanent dread. The only thing we can definitely expect for 2018 is a great deal of uncertainty. And, probably, insomnia.
McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View.