April 29, 2017 3:26 am JST

All bluff and bluster? Trump's first 100 days

Lackluster record raises question of whether president is sailing blind

HIROYUKI KOTAKE, Nikkei Washington bureau chief

Saturday marks the 100th day of the Trump presidency. © AP

WASHINGTON -- As his first 100 days in office draw to a close, U.S. President Donald Trump is lashing out against Syria and North Korea to take eyes away from his lack of progress on the domestic front, like on economic growth and immigration controls. The verdict is still out on whether he is simply bluffing or whether he has an actual plan up his sleeve.

"I'd give myself an A" on achievements, Trump had said back in February about a month after his inauguration. But he has little to show for his first 100 days in office. He announced plans for a massive tax cut on Wednesday. Yet he offered little explanation of how to make up for the resulting shortfall, other than a half-baked argument that the cuts would pay for themselves by boosting growth. Renowned economist Paul Krugman slammed the proposal in an op-ed column titled "Zombies of Voodoo Economics" in The New York Times, comparing it to former President Ronald Reagan's tax plans from three decades ago.

A portrait of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who once said, "I was born for a storm," hangs in Trump's Oval Office. The Trump transition team had prepared around 200 executive orders, with some even pushing for the new president to sign them all in his first 10 days, according to key member Ado Machida.

And Trump did stir up a storm. While he did not sign all the orders prepared for him, he has issued about 30 in his first 100 days, including on repealing Obamacare, erecting a wall on the Mexican border, and entry bans for several Muslim-majority countries. His divisive policies and heavy-handed approach have only widened rifts in the country, and many of his key promises remain in limbo.

Changing tack

His daughter, Ivanka, and her husband and senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner took the initiative to turn the tide. They joined hands with National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn and other mainstream figures in order to freeze out Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and an advocate of economic nationalism. Tensions between the ultraconservative Bannon and the relatively liberal Kushner are only growing as both sides vie for influence.

"Here's the reason there's no middle ground," Bannon reportedly told Kushner during one confrontation. "You're a Democrat."

This shift in power is clearly reflected in Trump's foreign policy. He has veered away from his isolationist campaign rhetoric, and has adopted a more pragmatic approach focused on U.S. alliances and involvement with the global community.

Trump said Wednesday that he will pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program through diplomatic channels. At the same time, he has moved the nuclear carrier USS Carl Vinson within striking distance of North Korea. His unpredictability, also demonstrated through firing missiles into Syria and dropping the so-called Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan, brings to mind former President Richard Nixon's "madman theory" of diplomacy.

Charting the future

Bluffing can be a useful tool for eliciting concessions, as long as it is used as part of a clear underlying strategy. But threats made without a plan could force Trump to backtrack time and again -- a major concern for the global community.

Trump ran on populist rhetoric aimed at middle- and lower-class voters disillusioned by growing economic disparities, as well as white Americans frustrated with increased immigration. His new pragmatic tone may be more effective in the long run. But the more he aligns himself with the establishment he attacked during his campaign, the further he strays from the promise of change that got him elected in the first place.

Trump's approval rating averaged 41% in his first quarter as president, the lowest of any U.S. leader since World War II, according to Gallup. While 62% of respondents in February thought he was someone who keeps his promises, just 45% shared that view in April. Despite his continued popularity among Republicans, concerns are starting to grow over the direction of the Trump administration.

Trump already seems to be preparing for re-election in 2020, and has reportedly applied to trademark the slogan, "Keep America Great!" The idea is to achieve his promise to "Make America Great Again" during his first term, and to maintain those gains through a second term. But it is unclear whether the political novice, who is trying to make up for his lack of experience with bluster, has a clear path charted out.

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