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Why Trump's first 100 days don't really matter

  • Critics of President Trump's first 100 days don't get 1 big thing: they don't matter.
  • Trump is a product of an anti-establishment movement that's still smoldering.
  • Thus, the old rules for judging presidents are out the window.
Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

An essential fact is eluding just about all the experts and pundits focusing so hard on evaluating President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office: They really don't matter.

But the usual suspects of mainstream media pundits, career politicians, and academia certainly don't get it. In fact, they continue to be living in an alternative reality that carries on as if the massive anti-establishment revolt that was the 2016 election didn't really happen. Their reality is the old reality. And while President Donald Trump's first 100 days have seen some failures, no failure is greater than the establishment's own failure to realize that the old rules are dead.


Let's backtrack a bit and just briefly clarify once more that 2016 was a massive defeat for the establishment in both major parties. While Donald Trump trounced a crowded field of experienced GOP candidates in the primaries, underfunded career back-bencher Bernie Sanders came within a whisker of defeating massive favorite Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Neither outcome would have been possible if the voters weren't trying to send the clearest pro-change message in generations.

"Even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is now going to be challenged by a Bernie Sanders supporter in the primaries in her supposedly super-safe district. It is indeed a political world turned upside down."

And they succeeded — not only in electing a crude outsider to the White House, but in changing all the rules with which we have judged presidential administrations in the past. The old rules for a president's first 100 days centered around the number of bills passed or programs launched. There was also a hard look at how long the new president held his approval ratings above a magic 65 or 70 percent threshold. Again, that's the old way. But based on those old rules, the consensus conclusion that President Trump's initial 100 days have been troubled is correct.

The new way is very different. While previous presidents have been judged on how effectively they've been able to create some degree of bipartisan support, the new anti-establishment plurality wants to see a president knocking that establishment and its traditions on their butts with regularity. A great example of that is the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch's confirmation flew in the face of a century's worth of Senate traditions, as the Republican leadership had to use the "nuclear option" and blow up the filibuster to see it through. That was thus a double victory for President Trump, as he not only got his man on the high court, but he tore down an establishment tradition to do it.

But wait, there's a lot more. Note how the pundits are squawking this week over President Trump and the GOP's failure to get any funding for the promised border wall into the new stopgap bill funding the government through September. From a purely legislative standpoint, that's an embarrassing failure for the Trump team. But in reality, the mere promise of a crackdown on illegal immigration has led to a drop in illegal crossings at our southern border to a 17-year low. Simply by saying the things that the last two presidents wouldn't about illegal immigration, (one from each party, mind you), the immigration issue is actually something that's still boosting President Trump instead of hurting him.

And let's look at those polls. President Trump's approval rating is indeed historically low for a new president and hovering at the 40-50 percent range, according to an aggregate of polls by FiveThirtyEight.com. But the key word in the previous sentence is "historically." The need to keep your approval ratings much higher now is just that; history. Remember that candidate Trump consistently posed disapproval ratings in the 60-70 percent range during the campaign. By contrast, his 50-60 percent disapproval rating now is a marked improvement. And that's not a joke. Could President Trump be the first president in generations to leave office with higher approval ratings then when he came in? Considering the low numbers he had on day one, he has the best shot.

But if you need more evidence of the alternative political realities in America, just look at what happened this weekend. Not only did President Trump refuse to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner and get roasted like his predecessors, he held a massive cheerleading rally for himself in Pennsylvania at the same time. President Trump probably wants the established media's approval as much as anyone, but the key point is he can survive without it.

None of this means President Trump is doing a great job, or at least doing as good a job as he and his cabinet members say he's been doing so far. What it does mean is that he's going to survive and succeed on his own terms no matter what the old rules and the establishment judges say.

Because the establishment remains under furious attack. The old rules aren't just obsolete for President Trump, but for all of Congress as well. Even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is now going to be challenged by a Bernie Sanders supporter in the primaries in her supposedly super-safe district. It is indeed a political world turned upside down.

But so far, not enough people in Washington seem to have heard that message. The same self-appointed judges of presidents and political success who got their election predictions so wrong are also using these first 100 days as their "proof" for why the Trump presidency is already and will continue to be a failure. They keep operating as if the most serious change is the fact that Donald Trump won the electoral college, as opposed to the serious change in voter sentiment that made that happen.

At some point they may get the message that their rules and proofs don't matter anymore. But either way, President Trump is going to keep on following his own drummer. And the rules have changed enough to enable him to do so indefinitely.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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