FEATURE: Trump's 100 days: So far it has been a rough ride

Nirmal Ghosh

WASHINGTON (The Straits Times/ANN) - Donald Trump faces setbacks at home but his foreign policy seems to be increasingly conventional, to US allies' relief.

The 70-year-old real estate tycoon, who swept to power on a wave of dissatisfaction among white middle-class voters in key battleground states, will be doing what he does best on his 100th day in office this Saturday - holding a rally in Pennsylvania, to tout his record.

But the truth is that US President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office have been relatively rough. Battling strong political headwinds in a deeply polarised nation, he has produced a patchy record on the domestic front.

In foreign policy, however, the early uncertainty is being replaced with some reassurances to old allies, at least in Asia.

On the home front, Trump has had one win with deep implications: the appointment to the Supreme Court of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch, ensuring that the court will be conservative-oriented, most likely for decades to come.

He also quickly lifted some environmental regulations on coal mining and cleared controversial oil pipeline projects, paving the way for several thousand jobs.

Vowing to protect American manufacturing and jobs, he pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and cracked down anew on illegal immigrants.

Under his America First policy, he ordered the tightening of the H1B work visa scheme which allowed companies to employ lower-wage foreigners. After an initial surge in his first two months, however, job creation lost steam in March.

His executive orders to curb immigration and refugee intake from select Muslim-majority countries triggered massive protests and were stalled by courts, leading the disgruntled President to lash out at a federal judge via Twitter, which remains his favoured mode of communication with his support base.

A replacement for the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, encountered resistance not only from Democrats but also from within the Republican Party, and was withdrawn before it got to a vote in the House.

Now, Trump wants to rush through a fresh version of the legislation, which is a core issue for millions of Americans, before his 100-day mark. Today, he is also due to unveil a tax reform package.

His promised wall along the Mexican border, touted in almost every campaign speech he made, has become a bitter bone of contention. Trump wants US$1.4 billion (S$2 billion) for it from the federal government first despite having pledged to make Mexico pay for it, something Mexico has flatly rejected.

By Friday, Democrats and Republicans must reach a deal, failing which, the federal government risks a shutdown.

Meanwhile, stiff confirmation hearings have delayed some top appointees from taking office as Democrats exacted revenge for similar tactics that they had endured from the Republicans during the Barack Obama administration.

US Trade Representative-designate Robert Lighthizer, for instance, has yet to be confirmed, leaving trade negotiations with foreign partners hanging. And in many cases, even nominations have not been made, leaving some departments like the Environmental Protection Agency understaffed.

On the foreign policy front, President Trump has signalled a hard line on Syria, North Korea and Iran. He unleashed a missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad's alleged chemical attack on civilians. He has also charged that Iran is not honouring the spirit of its deal to forego its nuclear weapons ambitions. And as North Korea continues to test missiles and may conduct a sixth nuclear test, Trump has warned that the status quo is unacceptable.

Signalling continued commitment to US allies in Asia, he emerged credibly from closely watched summits with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China's President Xi Jinping. With China, he stopped short of igniting a trade war, instead using terms of trade as a bargaining chip in exchange for greater pressure from Beijing on Pyongyang to halt its weapons programme.

"In some ways, President Trump's foreign policy appears to be increasingly conventional. There has been an emphasis on strengthening alliances especially with Japan and Korea," said Ms Bonnie Glaser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Analysts put his mixed record on domestic policy down to inexperience and even incompetence.

 Doug Magill, Cleveland, Ohio-based communications director for the Republican Party in Cuyahoga County, said: "President Trump gets in his own way at times.

"He goes in looking at what needs to be fixed and saying how do I fix it to make it better. The thing that trips him up is he can make proclamations but he has to work with the legislature and that's enormously frustrating."

"He is a businessman, a problem- solver, a pragmatist more than an ideologue. And that's going to frustrate conservatives no end and it's going to drive liberals crazy," he added. "But I think he'll be a more effective leader once he gets a year or two into the job."

Ms Nisha Biswal, a former assistant secretary of state, agreed, saying: "This administration has been a little bit slower than previous ones... (and) a little bit more episodic and ad hoc.

"Nevertheless, this is a learning process that every administration goes through. You're starting to see much more focus particularly at the institutional level on consistency, stability, continuity."

Trump continues to score record lows in polls, though they show a stark partisan divide. "Other presidents would have tried to broaden their appeal, but he continues to appeal only to his original supporters," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

"Most presidents start out popular but then their ratings begin to fall. He didn't start out with good ratings to begin with."

In some ways, Trump has morphed from maverick to mainstream Republican. The brash real estate tycoon said he would take on the Wall Street and the Washington establishment, yet he has populated the top rungs of his administration with billionaires and millionaires including many former Goldman Sachs executives.

"The style is typical of outsiders who think they can remake Washington, discover they can't, and have to call in veteran help," said Dr H. W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin.

His core supporters do not appear fazed, though.

"They're still behind him and they tend to look at wishy- washy Republicans and ideological Democrats as getting in his way," said the Republican Party's Magill.

"But he darn well better deliver on the domestic policy stuff or he's in trouble."