What we can learn from Trump's 101st day

Trump
President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he walks to the Oval Office on Tuesday.

Everything you need to understand about President Trump’s first 100 days — and perhaps what’s to come — you could have learned on just Day 101.

Last Sunday night, Congress and the White House reached a budget deal that will keep the government open through September. The terms of the agreement are not the sort that candidate Trump could ever have campaigned on and won the Republican nomination: No funding cuts for Planned Parenthood; only nominal cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency; more money for the National Institutes of Health; no money for a deportation force; no federal cuts to sanctuary cities; and no funding for border wall construction. Trump may have campaigned as a conservative, but he’s not governing as one.

This right after media outlets and pundits all spent a full week grading the young presidency. So prevalent were the assessments that Washington last week felt like the end of a semester. It seems everyone had a grade for the first 100 days. How Trump fared depended upon the proctor. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey, his approval rating is a modern low at 42 percent, but 96 percent of those who voted for him would do so again, and 85 percent would vote again for Hillary Clinton, so it does seem as if there’s too much subjectivity afoot.

At the start, it seemed Trump would govern by placating some of the rigid interests he cultivated to win the nomination. Having run with Mike Pence (remember Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act?), Trump surrounded himself with some very conservative influences. Jeff Sessions at Justice. Rick Perry at Energy. Scott Pruitt at EPA. Betsy DeVos at Education. Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development. And Steve Bannon at his elbow. And make no mistake, their impact on law enforcement, climate, the environment, and regulations will be long lasting. Greater still might be the reach from Trump’s delivering on a campaign pledge to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice from a list of 21 drawn up by the Federalist Society during the campaign. Neil Gorsuch could conceivably be on the court for 30 years.

But while the team was being assembled, setbacks occurred. Trump’s travel ban was stymied by the courts. His first attempt at repeal and replacement of Obamacare failed, not because of Democratic opposition, but because the Republican Freedom Caucus balked. No funding has been earmarked for the infamous Wall. And tax reform thus far consists of just one page and 200 words containing just seven figures. As the president’s chance for accomplishment waned and his approval rating tumbled, his positions have softened.

On just one day three weeks ago, Trump reversed course on five different significant issues:  NATO, the Export-Import Bank, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, interest rates, and not defining China as a currency manipulator. Plus, you can add NAFTA, Syria, and even golfing to that list. And that was all before last week’s budget deal.

I’m not the only one seeing the change.

In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Gerald Seib noted that the president’s single greatest asset is that “he isn’t the product of the traditional party system but rather that rarest of things in Washington, a genuine free agent.”  And looking forward, Seib wrote:

“… the president and his team already are pivoting toward a more centrist approach on some fronts.”

This is all confirmation that we’ve elected a president lacking an ideological core. No surprise when considering he is a former Democrat who once donated to Hillary Clinton and whose personal life seems at odds with the values espoused by the evangelical Christians whose support he cultivated. His moves are not dictated by a worldview but by the deal-making strategies he first outlined in his best seller The Art of the Deal. I may not have seen his election coming, but his style of management is not a surprise.

The Sunday after he was elected, my column carried this headline: “Did nation just elect a compromiser in chief?” There, with reference to his campaign speech at Liberty University invoking “Two Corinthians,” I noted:

“I’d like to think I heard words from a man who wasn’t a true believer, but is a dealmaker, a pragmatist who knows how to sell and close a deal. … Maybe that’s what we’ll get in the White House: a compromiser in chief. One can hope.”

That seems where we are headed. And no, I’m not normalizing him. I’m simply saying that when you put aside all the bombast, the tweets, the impulsivity, fixation on the election results, war with the media, and constant rancor — which isn’t easy — maybe we now know what the future holds.

The only constant thus far has been inconsistency, and that seems certain to continue.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts Smerconish at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.