WASHINGTON - Donald Trump is fast closing in on his first 100 days in office, and his public approval rating continues to hover at around 40 percent, still a low mark for a new U.S. president. Trump's rating on foreign policy has improved slightly in the wake of recent U.S. military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, but his domestic agenda seems stuck in neutral.
The latest Gallup Daily Tracking Poll has the president's approval rating at 41 percent, with 53 percent disapproval. That is an improvement from about three weeks ago when the approval level had dropped to 35 percent.
The latest Marist College survey found Trump's approval at 39 percent, little changed from before the U.S. strike on Syria. “Trump is facing a critical test as commander-in-chief,” according to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Americans are still looking for President Trump to provide leadership,” Miringoff said in a statement that accompanied the latest survey.
Watch: A tough 100 days for President Trump
Growing international focus
After a rough few months on the domestic front, President Trump has increasingly turned his attention to foreign policy concerns including North Korea's missile program and the recent military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan.
“Right now, the world is a mess,” Trump told reporters at a joint news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week. “But I think by the time we finish, I think it is going to be a lot better place to live, and I can tell you that speaking for myself, by the time I'm finished it is going to be a lot better place to live in because right now it is nasty.”
The flexing of U.S. military muscle against the Assad regime in Syria was welcomed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called the missile strikes "an interesting message to a lot of our adversaries around the world and our allies around the world that this administration is going to be more assertive than the previous one."
An uncertain domestic agenda
Trump's standing at home remains complicated. Protesters were out in force in recent days demanding that the president release his tax returns, including a violent clash in California between anti-Trump and pro-Trump demonstrators.
Congress returns to work next week, but the president's efforts on health care and other domestic priorities remain stalled, frozen by polarized politics in the view of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. “He'll have trouble constantly unless he moves to the middle. We are waiting for him to do it.”
At a recent political round table discussion hosted by Marist College, NBC News senior political editor Mark Murray said presidents have the most political leverage at the beginning of their term. “If you don't do health care now, you are not going to get it done over four years. If you don't end up getting tax reform (now), it is never going to happen.”
Catering to his base
Another panelist, liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, said Trump appears to have trouble looking beyond his core supporters. “And you can't just govern with your base. No one can. And I think his base has been his obsession and that just doesn't work in the long run.”
From the beginning of his presidency, Trump has struggled to broaden his base of support, said Brookings Institution analyst Sarah Binder. “Starting with historically low approval ratings, and even those approval ratings remain reasonably high with Republicans but even those numbers have come down a bit. So it is very hard going forward to build big coalitions in American politics from a very narrow base.”
Historical partisan divide
To be fair, Trump is also the inheritor of decades of growing political polarization, according to American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Barone. “And we have had a period of about the last 20 years in which we have had very durable, static party divisions, with each party getting approximately equal numbers of votes and many voters just not changing their party.”
Trump's best hope for progress on domestic issues may be to enlist support from Democrats, even if it risks angering Republicans, predicted Brookings analyst William Galston. “If the administration really wants to move in that direction, they ought to initiate discussions with Democrats on issues such as tax reform and infrastructure (improvement) right away, in my judgment.”
Others believe Trump has the capacity to change. “Every president learns on the job,” said Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in an interview for VOA's Press Conference USA. “No president emerges the same after his first crisis.”
Haass, who has worked for four presidents, said he believes Trump is likely already a different person from the one who walked into the Oval Office just a few months ago. “I don't know exactly what he'll learn…but the potential is there for change.”
Fewer than 100 days into his presidency, Trump is now trying to balance the pressing needs of his domestic agenda amid the backdrop of an uncertain and ever-changing world. In order to move his domestic agenda forward, however, he may have to enlist help from Democrats, a politically risky move that could turn off the very core supporters who continue to stand by him today.