Trump has yet to be tested
Perhaps it is inevitable, but at the advent of each new presidency, there are instant comparisons with the early performances of past administrations. Donald Trump, at least to his supporters, is linked to Ronald Reagan. For less charitable observers, Richard Nixon comes to mind. And there is always the first “100 days” made famous by Franklin Roosevelt.
For President Trump, the first weeks would not suggest Reagan. Despite the plethora of executive orders that would suggest some pressing national emergency. Trump inherited a generally peaceful and prosperous country. Unlike Reagan, he did not have the release of hostages or an “economic Dunkirk.”
Moreover, although Reagan alarmed some with dubbing the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire,” it was done a year after the USSR invaded Afghanistan. And, of course, Reagan did win the popular vote by 10 percentage points, while Trump scored an electoral win.
Reagan had a mandate while Trump does not possess a terribly wide sanction.
Richard Nixon is a better comparison, but even this comes with caveats. Nixon spent almost 11 months before he delved into controversy. In early 1969 he promised to “bring us together” with a very successful trip to Europe. He reassured America’s allies that the United States was a reliable friend. Although he did authorize a “secret” bombing of Cambodia, Nixon did not shout it from the housetop. Even Attorney General John Mitchell, a partisan, tried to assure opponents “You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say.” And, of course, Nixon had inherited the war in Vietnam.
Trump, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has only his election as the real drama. No over-arching theme except taking from the ether rather small issues. Complaints about alleged vote fraud, a quick travel restriction for some Muslim countries and gaudy signing ceremonies have dominated the discussion. Dramatic? Yes, but more like daytime television than anything particularly moving.
Given his penchant for controversy, Trump can be compared to Nixon but at a much later stage. Initially, Nixon tried to unite the nation but failed. Trump begins at about 1970, when Nixon started barking at the media, not the honeymoon period of 1969. Also, Nixon tried to win some former fans of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey by “hanging tough” on Vietnam. With his early actions, Trump has excited his base but has not added much to his support. To say the least, he has not moved the needle one inch since election day.
Trump is as ambitious as Reagan but lacks the latter’s calming nature. As well he is overdependent on his vice president, Mike Pence. One could hardly imagine either George H.W. Bush or Reagan trying to upset the notion that the president somehow needed to be tended to lest he begin to act hastily. With Reagan there was confidence that he could perform his duties without much melodrama. Perhaps because there was no need to hype a situation that economically was dire or overstate a Cold War that was frigid.
So Trump is in a world where he would be advised to take stock of the situation. He is not in a particularly easy position. Outside of sticking to his controversial promises, he has yet to be tested. Moreover, despite his grim inaugural address, the times are too humdrum for overstatement.