President Donald Trump's advisers have taken to boasting about the flurry of activity that has come out of the White House in the last few weeks. And on Sunday's political television shows, Stephen Miller, a senior White House policy adviser, made the most audacious version of this claim yet.
According to Miller, Trump has already accomplished more than most presidents achieve over the course of four or even eight years ― even though he has been in office for just three weeks.
Although statements like this sound like boilerplate, they are actually among the most politically important arguments Trump administration officials are making right now.
Even some of Trump's supporters have criticized the president for telling blatant falsehoods, alienating longtime international allies, and introducing clumsily made policies that have invited judicial scrutiny. They are lot more likely to forgive him if, despite all the controversy, he's taking concrete steps to realize his central campaign promises.
But although Trump has spent a lot of time holding meetings and signing pieces of paper in front of television cameras, the changes to federal policy have been less consequential than the images suggest.
In fact, Trump has actually accomplished relatively little compared to his immediate predecessor, former President Barack Obama.
What Trump Has Done So Far
Trump has signed some genuinely significant executive orders ― starting with one that reinstated the "Mexico City rule," which prohibits U.S. funding for global health organizations that provide information about abortion as part of their family planning counseling.
Trump has also officially restarted the controversial Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline projects, while formally pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And he has issued a new requirement that the federal government eliminate two regulations for each new one.
But the order turns out to be full of ambiguity, so the scope of its impact remains unclear. Meanwhile, many of the executive actions that the White House has touted these past few weeks are really promises for future action.
A case in point is an order to relax enforcement of the Affordable Care Act's penalties was similarly lacking in detail. It sent an important signal, for sure, and may have destabilized insurance markets by making carriers uncertain about the future. But, so far, federal policy hasn't really changed.
Trump's most consequential executive action so far was probably the attempt to block visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries ― and the courts have blocked that, in no small part because the crafting of the order was so ham-handed.
What Obama Did In His First Few Weeks
Obama was also busy in his first few weeks; like Trump, he signed executive orders all along the spectrum from concrete to symbolic. The best examples of the former were probably his orders ending torture, rescinding the Mexico City rule that Trump just reinstated, and tightening ethical standards for executive branch officials (although, over time, the administration took advantage of loopholes to dilute its effect).
But Obama didn't just sign executive orders in his first weeks. He also signed significant pieces of legislation.
Here were the three most memorable:
The Lily Ledbetter Act: The first bill Obama signed struck a blow against gender discrimination. It was the legislative response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that had severely limited the statute of limitations for women who wanted to sue employers for paying them less than similarly qualified men. The law, named for the woman responsible for the Supreme Court case, effectively extended the statute of limitations ― making it possible for many more women to avail themselves of the legal system when employers were treating them unfairly.
The Children's Health Insurance Program: Obama and his allies knew that comprehensive health care reform would take months to put together, so they acted immediately to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program, a Bill Clinton-era program that had provided coverage to literally millions of low-income kids. The 2009 law both reauthorized and substantially expanded the program, and financed that expansion with an increase in the tobacco tax ― which reduced smoking and almost certainly saved thousands (or maybe tens of thousands) of lives.
The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act: The immediate purpose of the Recovery Act was to turn around the economy, which was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month when Obama took office. It sought to do so through a combination of public works, tax breaks and assistance to state and local government that, together, added up to more than a $700 billion investment. The long-term goal was to make the economy more efficient and productive long after Obama would be gone, with investments in projects like alternative energy.
Why Trump Can't Move As Quickly
Obama signed the Recovery Act on his fourth week of office. Trump just finished his third, so, in theory, the new president still has a few days to sign something of similar consequence. In reality, that's not going to happen.
There are supposedly three big pieces of legislation at the top of Trump's domestic agenda: an infrastructure program, tax reform and repeal of the Affordable Care Act. All three are still in the conceptual stage, with GOP leaders arguing about the basic shape legislation should take. Trump suggested just last week that repealing and replacing Obamacare, which he once promised would happen within the first few weeks of his taking office, might not be done until next year.
Trump shares responsibility for his agenda with Congress, just as Obama did ― so a lack of comparative legislative progress says as much the Republicans who work on Capitol Hill as it does about the one spending workweeks at the White House.
But it's also true that Obama hit the ground running because he used his campaign to sketch out a detailed policy agenda; because he staffed his administration with veteran operatives who knew how to run the government; and because he used the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day to coordinate with Congress on proposals they could enact quickly. Trump didn't do these things, at least not to the same scale.
Of course, Obama's first few weeks were unusually busy by historical standards. And Trump has plenty of presidential term left. But he's done less than his aides keep suggesting.
And the notion that Miller put out there on Sunday ― that Trump has already accomplished more than most of his predecessors did by the end of their tenures ― is just laughable.
Want more updates on policy & politics from Jonathan Cohn? Sign up for his newsletter, Citizen Cohn, here.