Donald Trump grumbled at all the report cards the media was going to issue grading his “first hundred days;” he believes—and let’s face it, he’s right—that a hundred days is a meaningless contrivance that, because of the uniqueness of this Presidency, the press nonetheless is harping on obsessively this year. And because the political press is its own reality distortion field—what it focuses on becomes reality—the Trump White House played along, trotting out lists of accomplishments Trump could brag about.
But Trump’s second hundred days are likely to be far more consequential than the first. Focus first on domestic affairs: the House now appears close to taking another crack at repealing and replacing Obamacare with a bill that tries to appease both conservative hardliners in the so-called Freedom Caucus and the more moderate Republicans who also objected to the first effort. (How on earth it was possible that after seven years of opposing Obamacare the Republican leadership could not put forth a bill that was popular enough among its own members to pass remains the central mystery of Trump’s first hundred days.) The political facts of life remain the same: if the Republicans were as unified in support of something as the Democrats are in opposition, a bill could pass in both chambers.
This would be an “accomplishment,” in Washington’s terms, and it would enable the President to say he lived up to a campaign promise. And it would obviously be consequential as a matter of policy in the changes it would bring to a huge chunk of the economy. Politically, too, it would be important, though not necessarily in the way the President imagines.
While reforming Obamacare was a successful issue for the GOP in the last few election cycles, the reality of doing so carries risks. Will yet another overhaul of the health care system be broadly popular? Some Republicans who have privately questioned the wisdom of focusing so much attention on health care so early in a new Presidency point out that the last two administrations to attempt to do so—Clinton, who, with Hillarycare failed, and Obama, who succeeded—inflicted terrible damage to their party nationally because of health care. “People,” a House Republican staff member told me, “used to say social security was the ‘third rail’ of American politics—touch it and you die. But what if healthcare is actually the ‘third rail,’ or the new third rail. If this still appears rushed, and an effort to live up to a campaign pledge without carefully and convincingly explaining to people what we’re doing and why, this could be dangerous.”
Trump has also started the push for tax reform—something some GOP members wished he’d done first—by issuing the outline of a plan this week. And while a tax overhaul will not be passed in the second hundred days, the bill will be shaped during the next few months.
Again, if the party can keep its fractious membership together, tax reform can pass. The Democrats and their media mouthpieces are already focusing on the notion that Trump’s outline benefits “the rich” more than anyone. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean a tax overhaul won’t benefit the economy overall. Both of those things can be true, which is why Trump and the Congressional Democrats feel they are on much less risky political ground here than they are with health care.
The second hundred days are likely to produce more evidence that Trump’s is a learning Presidency. He told Reuters recently that the job is more difficult than he thought it would be, which if anything, shows that he really didn’t have a grasp on what the job was. But he does now, and in the second hundred days we’re likely to see some of the consequences of that in terms of foreign policy. The second smartest thing Trump has done since taking office was to appoint retired Generals James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly to, respectively, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, and Homeland Security Secretary. The smartest thing he has done is to listen to them.
Consider the complete change of tone and substance regarding China, our most powerful rival and the second largest economy in the world. Trump spent the entire campaign bashing China as a trade predator. Now he speaks about Xi Jinping as if he’s his new best friend. And that’s because Trump, thankfully, is smart enough to be educable. He understood that North Korea was an increasingly urgent problem, and when McMaster and Mattis told him he needed to work closely with Beijing to have even a remote possibility of defusing the issue diplomatically, the China bashing stopped, and the Trumpian compliments flowed. “President Xi,” Trump cooed in the Reuters interview, “is a very good man and I got to know him well” during the recent summit at Mar-a-Lago.
The next hundred days will reveal much about whether the US and China, working together, can get North Korea to the bargaining table, perhaps directly with Washington—something Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump is not averse to. It is by no means a lock, of course. But a persistent push toward that end by both countries is far better than the alternative—an eventual military strike that could trigger wide war on the Korean Peninsula. If Trump remains “flexible,” as he has called himself, and continues to listen to his senior foreign policy advisers, perhaps that calamity can be avoided. We will learn much by the end of the coming summer.