By this point in his presidency, George W. Bush had announced the outline of a tax plan that, with modifications, he would sign into law a few months later. Barack Obama had signed the stimulus, a bill to expand the children’s health-care program, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
President Donald Trump is having a slower start. He has not signed major legislation yet. The White House has not put out a legislative plan on three of Trump’s main campaign issues: health care, infrastructure and tax reform. He has been slower in filling government positions than his predecessors, too. And the president’s highest-profile executive orders, on immigration, have been stayed by federal courts.
During the campaign, Trump frequently promised rapid action once he took power. It is not entirely his fault that it has not happened yet. Congressional Republicans put the repeal of Obamacare on their agenda seven years ago, back when Trump was still giving money to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, but still have not united behind a plan. The Democrats have fought Trump’s nominees harder than opposition parties usually fight presidential appointments.
But Trump has also been slow to name people to posts. And the congressional disarray is in part because Trump did not perform one of the usual roles of a presidential nominee: helping to settle some of the debates in his party over major policies so that everyone would work together on an agenda.
Trump isn’t serving that function even now. Republicans are having a sometimes heated debate about taxes. Some of them think changing the way the tax code handles imports and exports is a crucial part of reform, and some of them oppose the idea. Trump first criticized the proposal, then opened the door to it.
He has been inconstant even about some of the ideas he touted during the campaign. He said the government would save money by negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, and kept saying it after the election. As president, though, he has renounced the policy.
Trump has also established a White House without clear lines of authority. Republican legal theorists have championed the idea of a “unitary executive” that speaks with one voice and acts with one purpose. Trump is not running an executive branch that conforms to the theory’s ideal.
Presidents before Trump have changed their minds about issues, let congressmen hash out issues, and tolerated factions in their administrations. The difference is one of degree, and it is substantial. Trump is doing much less to set a direction for his party in Congress than we have seen in decades.
That might be a good thing. Maybe Congress will adjust by doing more to set its own direction, as befits the branch of government to which Article I of the Constitution is devoted.
But it will take some getting used to. For congressional Republicans, the problem with Trump may not be that he is an authoritarian strongman, as so many of his critics say.
It’s that he is, by the standards to which we have become accustomed, a weak president.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.