Trump's first report card is a 'telling sign' of trouble ahead

  • Observers should refrain from assigning letter grades to Trump's first 100 days.
  • A better evaluation tool would be "proficiency reports" that children receive in elementary school.
  • Here's why that's not as harsh as it sounds.

With the Trump administration reaching the 100-day milestone, many political observers are taking a snapshot approach, focusing on the President's poll numbers or assigning him a letter grade.

Early assessments are certainly important, but we should avoid assigning Donald Trump a letter grade, as one would do for a high school student. Instead, a better evaluation tool might be the subjective "proficiency reports" that children receive in elementary school.

After you've stopped snickering, consider this: It's probably just as difficult to gauge the long-term success of a kindergartener as it is to predict the ultimate success of a presidency after 100 days. Nevertheless, even for younger students, "proficiency reports" try to discern potential success by examining:

  • Is the student making the progress expected of someone at his/her grade level?
  • Is the student beginning to grasp and apply key concepts, processes, and skills?
  • Does the student have the capacity to learn and grow?

By these standards, our student – Donald J. Trump – would receive a grade of "Needs Improvement."

Over the first 100 days, we've seen a president who has failed to make the progress expected when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party. Trump has failed to deliver on any of the 10 legislative promises on the campaign trail. Trump has resorted to repackaging campaign promises into executive orders that will take years to develop into concrete policy changes. And his most consequential action – the travel ban – has now been blocked in both of its iterations.

In terms of personnel, the Trump administration has fallen well behind its predecessors in appointing senior political managers to ensure that the government runs smoothly.

On foreign policy, with each passing day, Trump has abandoned his campaign rhetoric on China, NATO, and Syria. As for the border wall, the likelihood that Mexico will pay for the wall – assuming it is ever built – is virtually zero.

"On Day 100, the Trump administration seems no better coordinated than it was on Day 1. The result is an administration lurching from one issue to another issue, with no apparent strategy except to create the illusion of activity."

The sole accomplishment of the Trump administration – the confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice – is a significant one and should not be underestimated. That being said, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch does not represent an ideological shift for the Court and was only possible because of masterful maneuvering by the Senate majority leader.

Beyond Trump's failure to achieve the progress of his predecessors, it's clear that he is not grasping and applying the key concepts, processes and skills of governing.

On Day 100, the Trump administration seems no better coordinated than it was on Day 1. The result is an administration lurching from one issue to another issue, with no apparent strategy except to create the illusion of activity.

To be sure, other presidents have struggled early to find their footing. Bill Clinton was sidetracked in his first 100 days by Don't Ask Don't Tell, nomination problems, and White House disarray. But Clinton recovered to easily win re-election.

Why was Clinton able to rebound? Because Bill Clinton had the capacity to understand and learn from his early mistakes, make necessary adjustments (including major personnel moves), and adapt his policy agenda to fit the political mood of the country.

So, that brings us to the critical final question: does Donald Trump have a capacity to learn and grow?

To the extent Trump has engaged in self-reflection over the past 100 days, he now realizes that health care reform is "complicated" and that managing relations between China and Korea is "not so easy."

For those expecting Trump to adjust his temperament to the realities of governing, this is a 70-year-old businessman who ran a family business for decades through a combination of hasty decision making, inflammatory rhetoric, and an unwillingness to compromise or apologize.

If this first Trump proficiency report were intended for a young student, we would be heartened by the countless stories of mediocre students who later blossomed into academic superstars. However, when it comes to a president with little demonstrated ability to learn and adjust, this first report card is a telling sign of trouble ahead.

Commentary by Chris Lu, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. During the Obama Administration, he served as Deputy Secretary of Labor and White House Cabinet Secretary. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisLu44

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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