President Trump has been in office for a little over a month now, and it’s been an eventful term so far. In some ways, Trump’s first few weeks have been as unusual as his candidacy was: executive orders have sparked major protests, a high-level adviser resigned amid scandal, questions abound about the administration’s relationship with Russia, and the press conferences have … strayed a bit from the usual scripts. So it’s safe to say Trump has started his presidency in his own unique way. But there have also been moments of normalcy: There was nothing weird about Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, for example.
So how does Trump’s approach compare with that of previous presidents at the beginning of their terms? Looking at administrations since John F. Kennedy’s, presidents usually start off in one of four overlapping ways.1 They either focus on 1. setting a legislative agenda, usually with an economic focus or 2. using the tools of executive power to express social priorities. And they either 3. tackle one or two major agenda items or 4. take a kitchen-sink approach. Presidents have employed these strategies in different combinations, but Trump’s combination has been somewhat unusual: His actions so far have fallen into the social priorities camp, using executive power to send signals mostly about immigration and law and order, but also rolling back Obama-era protections of transgender students in schools.
Ask Congress for legislation vs. do stuff through executive-branch channels
The first approach, setting legislative priorities, is fairly straightforward. A president comes into office and asks the House and Senate to send him bills on this or that. Although he didn’t accomplish all that he set out to do, Kennedy was among the most ambitious in the very beginning of his term. He immediately sent a number of messages to House and Senate leaders asking for legislation on unemployment benefits, minimum-wage legislation, Social Security reform, agricultural policy and health care (including a proposal for health insurance for elderly Americans, foreshadowing the passage of Medicare under the Johnson administration). Jimmy Carter, as another example, issued a message to Congress asking for a comprehensive economic recovery program, and another asking for legislation on the nation’s natural gas supplies
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both took this route too, even signing major legislation during their first month. For Clinton, it was the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. For Obama, it was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization and (after some pretty significant wrangling with Congress) the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (known colloquially as the stimulus package).
Although modern Democratic presidents tend to be more enthusiastic than Republican presidents about enacting legislative programs that aim to solve problems through federal policy, the latter group has also used this early window to communicate with Congress. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush sent messages to Congress asking for legislation or at least communicating the administration’s legislative positions and priorities.
But Congress isn’t the only lever of government power. New presidents typically arrive in office after promising change. And so in the first few weeks of a new administration, a president will typically make clear breaks with past policy. These moves often come through the unilateral tools of the executive branch. One of the first things Carter did in office was issue a proclamation pardoning Vietnam-era draft dodgers, getting right to the heart of one of the big social questions of the time. Clinton initiated a controversial plan to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military (which resulted in a compromise policy, dubbed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” that remained in effect for almost 20 years). On Jan. 29, 2001, George W. Bush issued an executive order creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and now Trump have all reversed their predecessor’s position on the “Mexico City policy,” which deals with abortion and international family planning. George H.W. Bush succeeded a president of the same party and did not take any action on the Mexico City policy, but he signaled his social conservative credibility by addressing the 1989 March for Life rally mere days after taking office. (This job fell to Vice President Mike Pence this year.)
Trump, for the most part, has taken the do-it-alone approach. In fact, one of the clearest ways in which his first few weeks have broken with precedent is in how limited his interactions with Congress have been. (This week may change that.) He’s signed two joint resolutions scaling back federal regulations and one bill expanding the powers of the Government Accountability Office to look for fraud in government programs. But he hasn’t really approached Congress to ask them to move on major legislative items. Instead, Trump has taken a slew of executive actions. Congress, for its part, has a clear agenda for tax reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act, and Trump is on board with these plans, but it’s not yet clear who will set the agenda and work out the details. We may know more after this week: The first details of Trump’s budget proposal were released on Monday, and he’ll address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
Unified agenda vs. the kitchen-sink approach
When Reagan took office in 1981, many of his first acts in office, both symbolic and substantive, were directed toward the economy and budget issues. By the end of February, he had submitted several messages about the federal budget to Congress, and in early February he gave a nationally televised address about economic recovery. He also addressed a joint session of Congress regarding the same topic on Feb. 18. Similarly, George W. Bush kept to an agenda of tax cuts, education reform and bringing a faith-based approach to social policy. This is one approach: Focus on a few big things and try to make progress quickly.
Other presidents have preferred instead to pursue lots of smaller agenda items. Nixon addressed a wide range of policy goals, including Head Start, anti-poverty programs and federal support for graduate education in the sciences on the domestic side, along with a full plate of foreign policy issues. George H.W. Bush similarly took on a bunch of issues, touching on everything from environmental protection to homelessness to banking reform in his Feb. 9, 1989, address to Congress.
Trump hasn’t developed a reputation for laser-like policy focus, but so far a few big themes have emerged, primarily scaling back regulations and tightening immigration policies, including visa restrictions and rules regarding deportations. These trends are not surprising in light of the 2016 campaign.
In that way, Trump’s start has been somewhat unusual — focused on a few broad areas but lacking a legislative agenda. Usually presidents focused on specific areas of policy — the economy, taxes, health care — are quick to ask Congress for legislation. Still, we’ll see what Trump’s speech brings on Tuesday.