Appearance of action is up. Actual action is not.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Trump's Illusion of Unusual Action

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Everyone seems to agree that, for better or worse, Donald Trump's presidency is off to a fast start. But it's not. Trump has done an excellent job of kicking up a ton of dirt. But two weeks in, there's a lot less than may seem.

To be sure: The travel ban executive action is really happening, although it's been reined in already, and may still be in judicial and political danger going forward. That's one major item on the side of "fast start." And while it's very low hanging fruit, selecting a Supreme Court nominee is also a solid, substantive action. 

Beyond that? He's off to a very normal start in terms of real action. 

Personnel 

Trump's cabinet is being confirmed at an unusually slow pace. To some extent, that's because Democrats are slowing things down, something that other new presidents did not face. But that's only a part of what's happening. Trump announced his cabinet more rapidly than other recent presidents, but it turned out that he did so by publicly naming his choices before they were vetted. That slowed the process because they hadn't yet handled the ethics agreements and produced the paperwork needed for Senate confirmation. It also meant that Trump wound up with a relatively high number of picks with conflict-of-interest and other ethics issues. Moreover, while recent presidents have jettisoned those who ran into ethics or other controversies, Trump (and Senate Republicans) have chosen to just keep going. That may mean Trump will be the first president in decades to have all his original announced choices confirmed -- but it also is responsible for some of that Democratic foot-dragging. 

Meanwhile, at the sub-cabinet level Trump remains well behind Barack Obama's pace. He's up to 35 total nominations to jobs that need Senate confirmation, up from 28 last time I checked on January 18. That's seven in the last 16 days; at the (slightly higher) pace of one every two days, it will take him almost another year to nominate someone for each of the 692 jobs considered most important by the Partnership for Public Service. 

Legislation

He's about to receive a handful of bills cancelling regulations issued by the Obama administration, but hasn't signed any yet, and it's not clear anyway whether those should count as Trump or Congressional actions. None of his own legislative priorities -- his wall, his tax package, his infrastructure plan, and repealing and replacing Obamacare -- have moved through committee yet in either chamber of Congress. The tax cuts seem pretty healthy right now, but none of them appear ready to be moving towards quick wins and early signing ceremonies, to say the least.

Two weeks, of course, isn't much time. But at this point Barack Obama had signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The economic recovery bill, a major piece of legislation, passed the House on January 28 (and was eventually signed on February 17). In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law on February 5. So at best Trump's pace is similar to Clinton's, but only if one considers the deregulation bills equivalent to Family and Medical Leave. 

Executive Action

Of course this is where Trump has seemed to be in action, signing seemingly important directives. And, again, the travel ban certainly qualifies. But much of the rest is either standard for new administrations (an ethics plan, reversing the Mexico City policy, freezing the regulations the previous administration couldn't finish in time, all of which Obama did right away) or it's largely symbolic at this point, such as his proclamations about building a wall on the Mexican border, and moving against the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- but it was already long dead, having never had the votes in Congress, and so having a signing ceremony was more theatrical than substantive. Trump also signed orders supporting two pipelines and against sanctuary cities, but again those were more declarations of policy than actual action to make them happen. 

Signing such things is hardly unusual. Barack Obama famously signed an executive action to close Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of his administration, but never actually got it done and was still working on it up to the last week of his two terms. Obama had 9 executive orders in January, so even here Trump's action isn't unusual. 

Other Actions 

Much of what Trump has done in foreign affairs so far have been mundane tasks, although in some cases botched so thoroughly that it creates a ton of news. It's likely, for example, that the sudden crisis in U.S.-Australian relations will be remembered as less consequential than the puzzling success of Air Supply and Men At Work, rather than sparking a new close bonding between Australia and China. Probably. Nor will the U.S really invade Mexico. Probably. But in other areas, there's been even less going on. Whatever the Trump administration's eventual policy towards Russia turns out to be, so far all we have is a very by-the-book speech by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Meanwhile, at least through the first two weeks, the Iran deal is intact, the Paris climate accord is intact, the U.S. embassy in Israel hasn't been moved to Jerusalem, and NATO still stands. There's no revival of torture, with Trump backing down in the face of opposition within his cabinet. 

Going Forward

Now, none of this is to say that there won't be important policy changes ahead during this administration -- there certainly will be, if not in many areas on the scale that either his most enthusiastic supporters or his most concerned opponents hoped and feared. It's certainly still possible that Trump and the Republicans will wind up repealing (and perhaps even replacing?) Obamacare, although "certainly still possible" is hardly what many Republicans expected on November 9 or even January 3, when the Congress was sworn in. It's also still possible that Congress will fund and Trump will build his wall -- although now parts of it will apparently be invisible. And new issues will arise, some of them yielding huge policy changes. 

And of course all of this is just about assessing how much substantive activity we're seeing, not whether it's good or bad. 

Overall? There's nothing special about how much Trump has accomplished after two weeks. He just seems to make a ton of news doing it all. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net