WASHINGTON — The time for a turnaround is tightening.
The problem for President Trump is not just that he's had a bumpy beginning in office – so did John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, among others. It's also that he's heading into the second half of his first year in the White House without yet applying lessons learned the hard way about imposing discipline, compartmentalizing scandal and adjusting course.
"It's a presidency under siege," Leon Panetta, a Democratic elder who helped rescue another embattled White House as chief of staff for President Clinton, said in an interview."Unless some dramatic changes are made, I think there's a real question about whether the presidency can survive."
The first six months of Trump's presidency were brutal.
The next six months could well be worse.
As the midpoint of his crucial first year approaches Thursday, a steady stream of disclosures about contacts between Trump's team and Russians who may have involved in election meddling has transfixed Washington. When it comes to issues closer to Americans' lives back home, the president is still in search of his first major legislative victory on a core campaign promise — to replace Obamacare with a "wonderful" new health care system, say, or to cut taxes, or to launch a massive investment in infrastructure, or to build a wall across the Mexican border.
Allies, critics and historians are watching the clock. While presidents are elected to four years in office, all political time is not created equal. For his modern predecessors, the first year or so after an election is when campaign promises typically are met and signature legislation passed.
"You've got just one year when they treat you right and before they start worrying about themselves," Lyndon Johnson, who served as Senate majority leader before winning the White House, famously groused.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday showed Trump's standing, which already had set record lows, deteriorating more. His 36%-58% approve-disapprove rating is down six percentage points from the 100-days mark and the lowest for any president at six months in the 70-year history of polling.
What's next for Trump:
- A showdown in the Senate over repealing the Affordable Care Act
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had planned for debate this week, but that's been delayed by the absence of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is recovering from surgery. Republicans do not have a vote to spare, and time is not on their side. "The longer the bill's out there, the more conservative Republicans are going to discover that it's not repeal," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of two GOP senators who have already announced their opposition, warned Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation.
The president acknowledges it was a commitment he made in the 2016 campaign and congressional Republicans have been making for seven years. But in a conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One last week, he didn't sound confident about delivering.
"I'd say the only thing more difficult than peace between Israel and the Palestinians is health care," he lamented during the flight to Paris to celebrate Bastille Day.
- A battle this fall over messy financial chores of government that carry more political risks with failure than reward with success
At the end of fiscal year on Sept. 30, the federal government runs out of money; failure to pass spending bills or at least a stopgap measure would force a partial shutdown. About the same time, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling so the government can borrow more money and pay its bills; failure to do that would lead to the first default in U.S. history.
Budget battles are famously difficult, and debates over raising the debt limit often have been hard-fought by fiscal conservatives and narrowly won.
- A plan to move on to a tax bill after a health care measure has been passed, or at least officially sidelined
White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters last week that the White House hopes to have the provisions of the tax plan "locked in place" before Congress leaves on its August recess — so far, all the administration has released is a bare-bones two-page summary — with legislative mark-up to begin when members return to town.
Some congressional leaders question whether that timetable is realistic. House Speaker Paul Ryan says he hopes a tax bill can be passed by the end of the year.
- A promise to pursue a massive infrastructure proposal
This has been a core promise for Trump, though the administration has struggled to pull together the details. In an interview with CBS that aired on May 1 — 11 weeks ago and counting — Trump said the bill would be submitted "over the next two or three weeks, maybe sooner."
The need to respond to and manage multiple inquiries into how Moscow meddled in the presidential election and what role, if any, Trump associates played
The Justice Department investigation, now led by special counsel Robert Mueller, is proceeding behind the scenes while congressional committees are holding public hearings.
Already in the works: Brad Parscale, the digital media director for the Trump campaign, announced Friday he would testify before the House Intelligence Committee. The Senate Intelligence Committee wants to talk to Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior White House adviser. And the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to hear from Trump's top campaign aide, Paul Manafort.
The Russia issue is sure to be raised at Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday for senior intelligence and national security nominees.
In a tweet posted Saturday, the president once again dismissed "the Russian hoax story!" But Donald Trump Jr.'s release of an email string last week that showed the president's son eager to meet with Russians offering dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton has undercut White House denials that there is nothing about campaign contacts with Russia that justifies investigation.
"It's a very serious matter than needs thorough investigation," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican leader and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on NBC's Meet the Press when asked if the allegations were a hoax. "And we are going to get to the bottom of this."
To be sure, the president can point to achievements over the past six months.
There is his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. A rollback in regulations and reordering of priorities on immigration, education and environmental protection, although some have hit roadblocks in the courts. A ceasefire in Syria, negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that seems to be holding. Stock markets that keep hitting new highs.
He also has established a sort of independent Trump News Network on social media that enables him to drive the conversation and dominate the debate in 140-character bursts.
But Trump hasn't developed a way to separate the Russian controversy from the business of governing, as President Reagan did during the Iran-contra investigations and Clinton did during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton weathered impeachment by dealing with personal scandal on one track while focusing on public policy on another.
Now, daily revelations on Russia are "sucking the oxygen out of the room; everybody knows that," McCain told CNN last week.
"He's now subsumed by scandal on this whole Russia issue, which is consuming almost everything else he's trying to accomplish," Panetta agreed. "He's got competing centers of power in the White House. There is no discipline, and no one who can exert discipline, as far as I can see. There's certainly not much of a chain of command. And the result is I'm not sure what the hell his agenda is."
What's alarming for those who want the president to succeed is this: The political moment may never be better for Trump than it is now.
He continues to hold relatively solid support from the voters who put him in the White House, and he has the benefit of a House and Senate both under GOP control. Republicans fear and Democrats hope that won't be true after the midterm elections next year.
Even so, Trump is having the most difficult first year of any modern president, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "It comes from his unprecedented lack of government or military experience, and his unprecedented personality," she says.
On the theory that the first year — not the first 100 days — represent the make-or-break time, The Miller Center launched The First Year Project in October 2015 to study the challenges the new president faces in the future and the experiences of his predecessors in the past.
Perry rates two modern presidents as having "A-plus" first years: Franklin Roosevelt, who tackled the Depression by pushing his New Deal programs through Congress with dizzying speed, and George H.W. Bush, who skillfully oversaw the end of the Cold War. She gives George W. Bush an A for delivering on campaign promises of a tax bill and education reform, and for his response in the months after the 9/11 terror attacks.
But she gives Kennedy a B-minus, though with credit for applying lessons he learned during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and Clinton a C-minus, for early chaos and controversy over appointments and priorities.
"Maybe in the D-plus realm," she says.