100 days: Political experts say Trump is learning the limits of his office

  • President Donald Trump waves as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday in Washington. AP

Monitor staff
Saturday, April 29, 2017

In the days and weeks after President Donald Trump swept to an unexpected victory in November, many academics voiced fears that America was headed toward an autocracy.

“The level of anxiety I saw among political scientists in general, was that this was the onset of authoritarianism in America,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.

The president’s sweeping executive orders banning immigration and travel from majority Muslim countries compounded that fear, but Scala said there is less anxiety four months into Trump’s term.

“People’s worst fears about President Trump have not been realized because Trump himself doesn’t grasp the presidency all that well,” Scala said.

Over the first few months of his term, political experts say Trump is learning the limits of his office – namely, a system of checks and balances with a deliberately slow moving Congress and federal judges whose job it is to interpret the law, even when the law goes against the president’s wishes.

The judicial and legislative branches have acted as roadblocks to some of Trump’s major policy proposals, including the immigration ban and repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

“The system of checks and balances is not spent, it’s not weakened, it’s actually shown more resilience than perhaps people expected 100 days ago,” Scala said.

Still, experts say some of the most noticeable and lasting change brought by the Trump administration include changes in government bureaucracy itself, deregulating government agencies and choosing cabinet members with track records of fighting against the agencies they now lead. Most noticeable is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who fought the agency as Oklahoma Attorney General.

“He’s laid the groundwork for some big changes in Washington,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor and pollster Andy Smith. “There’s some things that he’s doing that are flying under the radar to most people.”

Former New Hampshire GOP chairman and Ambassador to the United Nations Gerald Carmen shares that view. Carmen, now based in Washington, should know. He served as head of the General Services Administration under President Ronald Reagan and was tasked with a deregulation effort back then.

Carmen, an early Trump supporter, said he thinks that for all of candidate Trump’s promises to be an unconventional president, he believes the office will shape the president more than the president will shape the office.

Throughout his decades in politics, “I’ve seen them all molded into the job,” Carmen said. “I think that if you look at his cabinet, you will see a much more conventional president than you expect. You only have so much leeway, no matter who you are.”

Trump’s promise of stark budget cuts to agencies including the EPA and the Department of Education and promises to reform and cut taxes aren’t much different than past Republican administrations, Carmen added.

“That’s what a Republican administration would be doing,” he said. “That will be conventional.”

However, a CNBC analysis shows some of Trump’s proposed cuts are much steeper than his most recent Republican predecessor. President George W. Bush’s budget added money to the education department and health and human services administration, while Trump’s would cut billions. Trump is proposing a $2.6 billion cut at the EPA, eliminating thousands of positions, whereas Bush’s budget cut $500 million by removing “unrequested earmarks.”

Bush’s budget proposed a $15 billion boost to the military budget, just a fraction of Trump’s suggested $50 billion in additional spending.

One thing Carmen thinks makes Trump an unconventional Republican is his stance on trade. The president has scrapped the Trans Pacific Partnership and vowed to pursue an “America First” policy when it comes to producing goods domestically.

Carmen said he sees Trump as aligning closer with the Democrats on trade and will be watching to see what policies the president pursues.

Trump has already made waves on the issue, putting new tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imports. The move came after the president complained on Twitter about the dairy trade between the United States and its northern neighbor.

As things have calmed down in Trump’s administration, the president’s propensity to use Twitter still has political experts and the president’s supporters uneasy.

In the early days of Trump’s presidency, voters including Mike Faretra of Bow and Jeff Spear of Salisbury said they’d like to see president tweet less and phrase his statements more carefully.

“I think that Trump should just knock that off,” Faretra said in February. “He’s the president of the United States. You need thick skin if you’re the president.”

Scala said Trump’s impulsiveness continues to give him reason for concern. Consider the tense relations between the United States and North Korea, which Scala said makes him “cringe.”

“There seems so much potential for things being misinterpreted and getting out of hand,” he said. “That to me at this point is more of a concern than Trump the autocrat.”