Governing is always hard in polarized times, but it has been especially hard during U.S. President Donald Trump’s first year in office. Undisciplined and unpopular, Trump has been largely unable to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill despite Republican control of both houses of Congress. With his political capital shrinking as his public approval falls, Trump will no doubt struggle to deliver on his campaign promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reform the tax code, build a wall along the southern border, and repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
It is tempting to blame Trump’s legislative failures on his lack of government experience, his indifference to the details of policy, and his tempestuous personality. But focusing only on personal characteristics misses the political and institutional dynamics at play. The two parties are deeply polarized, Republicans hold only a slim Senate majority, and Republican conferences in both chambers cannot agree on key issues. A more disciplined and popular president might have managed to bring Republicans together. But huge obstacles would still have remained. As it stands, Trump is heading into his second year in office with little to show in terms of legislative victories—and few reasons to believe his agenda will fare any better in the future.
STUCK IN NEUTRAL
Judging legislative accomplishments so early in a president’s term is risky. Congressional Republicans won’t face voters until November 2018, and Trump won’t for two more years after that. But so far, Trump’s record pales beside those of other modern presidents. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt’s extraordinary first 100 days, during which he persuaded Congress to pass a raft of major laws to combat the Great Depression, that mark has become a checkpoint in assessing presidential performance. In their first 100 days, most presidents exploit their electoral victory to push through major proposals. Even with Bill Clinton’s rocky start in 1993, Democrats swiftly enacted the nation’s first family-leave law, which had been vetoed by George H.
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