Trump’s first six months look awful, until you remember Clinton’s
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The last two weeks have not been kind to President Trump. By now, surely we have to agree that Trump’s first six months have been the worst start to any presidency in history, right? 

That’s not necessarily the way I see it. While some aspects of Trump’s presidency are unprecedented, we actually don’t have to look that far into the past to find another president who struggled in much the same way immediately after taking office. 

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Though I’m sure neither man would enjoy the comparison, consider some of the similarities:

 

The resignations and public sniping in recent days show Trump made mistakes when staffing his White House. It also shows that more order is needed in the West Wing. That ought to ring familiar to those who remember Clinton’s first few months in D.C.  

When Clinton arrived in Washington, he decided to bring the “FOBs” — Friends of Bill — with him. These individuals knew the Clintons from their days in Arkansas. They were intensely loyal to the president, but they were also woefully unprepared for the jobs they were asked to do. One of those FOBs was Mack McClarty, a friend of Bill’s since kindergarten, who was appointed chief of staff despite his submissive personality and lack of prior experience. Little surprise, the administration struggled with basic tasks of governance — like submitting nominations and getting security clearances. Tasks that, not coincidentally, the Trump White House hasn’t exactly excelled at, either.

Last week, Trump pushed out his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, a man who, like McClarty, was selected mostly for his loyalty, but a man who was also equally in over his head. So, at least give Trump credit for cutting Priebus loose now. It took Clinton nearly two years to replace McClarty.  

Clinton also initially struggled with messaging. Clinton’s first communications director was one of his campaign aides, George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos was responsible for handling press briefings, but he wasn’t very good at it. Stephanopoulos couldn’t effectively deal with tough questions about controversies like firings in the White House travel office, and he wasn’t as aggressive in defending Clinton as the president wanted. Sounds like Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, doesn’t it? Like Spicer, Stephanopoulos didn’t last through the summer of the administration’s first year.   

Clinton’s dismissals of McClarty and Stephanopolous remind us that the Trump administration exodus right now is not unusual. And while it might not have had the headline-grabbing power of Anthony Scaramucci’s 10 days in the Trump administration, Clinton chewed through two communications directors, four deputy chiefs of staff, two congressional liaisons, two political directors and two schedulers in his first year in office alone. And that’s just a handful of all the hirings and firings.

The Trump-Clinton parallel also runs between their initial legislative records — or lack thereof. Clinton and Trump each had the advantage of their party controlling both houses of Congress. Trump hasn’t been able to capitalize on these advantages yet, but neither did Clinton early in his administration. 

Both men campaigned promising to focus on jobs. Yet Clinton failed to pass a meaningful economic stimulus bill, and he abandoned his plans for a middle-class tax cut. Trump’s plans for tax reform are likewise stalled. Both men promised to reform the country’s healthcare system. Trump’s attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act went up in smoke late last Thursday, while Clinton’s healthcare dreams were also starting to vanish at the same point in his own term. Both presidents announced unpopular, restrictive military personnel policies that caused a backlash on the Hill. Both were dogged by past scandals that followed them to D.C. Both had problems picking an attorney general.

I could go on. 

Poor organization, ineffective messaging, high turnover and legislative failures link Clinton and Trump’s early White Houses. Clinton’s approval in June 1993 fell to just 36 percent. Trump’s currently stands at 36 percent. Trump’s experience to date doesn’t look so unusual when taken in proper perspective.

Here may lie the difference: Clinton recovered — there is less reason to believe Trump will do the same. Clinton proved he was a quick learner and a skilled politician. Trump has given the public no reason to believe he is capable of such a transformation. So if Trump truly wants to be a better president, he might need to study the changes made by a past president he can empathize with, even if it’s one he despises.

David O’Connell is an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is the author of “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion.” 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.