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President Trump’s agenda meets reality, and the outcome is in doubt

Just about everyone has been captivated by the daily drama of President Trump’s first 100 days. The danger is that we will lose sight of the bigger picture—what we have learned about the basic orientation of his presidency.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump espoused four distinctive positions—on trade, immigration, and fiscal policy, and foreign affairs. He was critical of traditional Republican support for free trade and advocated for restraints on immigration without parallel in our recent history. He rejected small government conservatives’ call for cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and declared himself the “king of debt.” And against the United States’ bipartisan, post-war commitment to international alliances and institutions, he proclaimed an “America First” approach to foreign policy.

These positions ensured a struggle between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party’s conservative establishment once he took office. We begin to see where he is getting his way and where he is being compelled to yield.

On the winning side, the Trump administration has been steadfast in its pursuit of a restrictive immigration policy. Although the failure of the president’s executive order on immigrants and refugees slowed the pace of policy change in some areas, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have toughened enforcement of existing laws and increased the pace of deportations—at least relative to the previous two years. Some categories of undocumented immigrants who had enjoyed a measure of protection during the Obama administration are now vulnerable to apprehension.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy has been more bark than bite. Despite his campaign rhetoric, he has declined to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he withdrew his claim that NATO was “obsolete” and reiterated our longstanding commitment to the transatlantic alliance; he withdrew his threat to abandon the “one China” policy and offered President Xi a better deal on trade in return for cooperation on North Korea’s nuclear threat; he allowed members of his administration to rebuke Russia’s Putin, for whom he had kind words during the campaign; and despite urging that America’s military power should be used only to defend our core national security interests, he ended up authorizing a strike on Syria in response to a humanitarian outrage on the part of the Assad regime. The combination of facts on the ground and a team of senior advisors with traditional views on diplomacy and defense prevailed against the quasi-isolationist position Mr. Trump had previously staked out.

Fiscal policy has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, Mr. Trump found it impossible to square one campaign pledge—to repeal and replace Obamacare—with another pledge to keep Medicaid intact. (He may not have understood that repealing Obamacare meant slashing Medicaid.) On the other hand, he has made no move to cut either Social Security or Medicare, and the tax plan that his administration recently released (a sketch rather than full legislation) would add trillions to the federal debt over the next decade. There are no signs that the king of debt cares much about the budget deficit; yet there is every reason to believe that the combination of higher military spending and lower revenues would have the same fiscal consequences as it did at the beginning of the Reagan administration.

And finally, trade: the scene of an ongoing battle between the “nationalists” and the “globalists” within his administration. Mr. Trump’s early steps seemed to signal the victory of the nationalists. He nominated a trade skeptic to head the White House Trade Council and another as the US Trade Representative. He withdrew from the unratified Trans-Pacific Partnership and proclaimed general opposition to multilateral trade treaties, which cast a shadow over ongoing multilateral negotiations with the Europeans.

Matters came to a head when the nationalist faction seemingly persuaded the president to announce U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, which he had denounced as the worse trade deal ever during the campaign. But a furious pushback from the Mexican president, the Canadian prime minister, most of the US business community, and members of his own cabinet persuaded him not to go through with his threat and instead subsequently announced he would not withdraw but negotiate changes in the free trade agreement.

Mr. Trump dismissed talk of a split within his administration and announced that “I’m a nationalist and a globalist. I’m both.” The difficulty, he discovered, is that on some issues he can’t be both at the same time. He has to choose. No one doubts him when he says that “I’m the only one who makes the decision, believe me.” The question is whether his decisions on trade represent settled convictions or rather tactical responses to political pressure from the forces vying for dominance inside as well as outside his administration.

In short, Mr. Trump has been all over the map on his signature issues during his first 100 days—firm on immigration, yielding on foreign policy, mixed on fiscal issues, vacillating on trade. Perhaps the next 100 days will shed additional light on what America and the world can expect from his administration in the long run.

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