Donald Trump is not wrong: Judging a presidency on its first 100 days — which will be marked on Saturday — is an inherently ridiculous exercise.
There is, however, a less ridiculous way to assess Trump’s first few months, and he does not fare well.
It’s worth noting that when President Franklin Roosevelt first used the 100-day standard in a 1933 radio address, he was referring to Congress’ time in session, not his own time in office.
In that context it makes some sense — and a public debate on what this Congress has done in its first 100 days (April 13, but who’s counting?) would actually be useful.
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Legislators are supposed to legislate. It’s fair to ask what they’ve accomplished. A president, by contrast, is supposed to lead, and that is a very different thing. The news media’s difficulty distinguishing between the two is another aspect of its embarrassing obsession with this 100-day marker. The president is not the legislator-in-chief.
A president’s most important job during the first 100 days is building a team that will allow him to succeed in the 1,361 days that follow.
In both the public and private sectors, executive leadership begins with hiring talented and qualified people who have both the creativity to conceive of innovative solutions and the competence to carry them out.
Strong executives understand that their success depends on putting in place the right team and allowing their deputies to choose their own staff. Trump has failed both tests. He lags far behind past presidents in filling the senior ranks of government.
The Partnership for Public Service, which studies presidential transitions, reports that Trump has nominated people for only 79 of 554 positions that require Senate confirmation. Even some cabinet positions remain unfilled.
And some jobs filled, like making Michael Flynn the National Security Adviser have soured. Questions have been raised as to whether Flynn was properly vetted. If Trump’s team was lackadaisical in backgrounding high level staffers, it’s the opposite in the hiring of White House worker bees, where only Trump loyalists seem to find employment.
Trump has refused to allow his cabinet members to hire their own staffs, sometimes blacklisting those who spoke critically of him during the campaign.
This has slowed down hiring and kept good people that could help advance his agenda out of government. But combining micromanaging with pettiness is a recipe for failure — and characteristic of someone unaccustomed to managing a large private organization.
Another crucial part of an executive’s job is getting people to work together, but Trump has failed to get control of the infighting and leaks plaguing the White House.
No new administration is free from such drama, but Trump’s predecessors generally did a good job of keeping private divisions from becoming public distractions. Trump has failed the 100-day test not because of legislation he failed to get through Congress, but because of the leadership he failed to exert in the executive branch.
For his presidency to be a success, he will need to focus more energy on building and empowering a team — and getting its members to work together.
This editorial first appeared in Bloomberg View.