Judging the President’s first year in office is incredibly challenging.
The first task is to ask what metric to use. Initially, it might make sense to ask how closely he’s governed in relation to his campaign promises. Many of those campaign promises, however, were unrealistic fantasies that even many of his supporters didn’t tend to believe. Shortly before the election Salena Zito wrote “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”. This may be the key to understanding Trump and his appeal, but it also makes fidelity to his unrealistic promises an impossible metric when his own crowd didn’t have such expectations.
Besides, the more important question to ask has always been how much did he advance or hinder what policy preferences I’d prefer.
But this presents challenges as well.
Grading President Trump’s actions over the past year
It’s said that actions speak louder than words, and I believe it’s important that they should. However, both his supporters and detractors in the general public seem to agree that in his case, his words overshadow anything he’s done or has refrained from doing. Certainly that seems the case with news coverage that spends far too much of its time deciphering his twitter rants. Given both what he says and how he says it, it’s hard to fault anyone for being distracted. Maybe it’s 4D chess, and maybe he’s just a moron, but most conversations I’ve stumbled into about him have started with something along the lines of “Did you hear what the President said on twitter?”
Now, I’m not saying that words, even on twitter, don’t matter at all. His back and forth with North Korea could do anything from producing talks with South Korea to ending in war with a nuclear country. His retweets from Britain First could complicate a post Brexit UK/US trade deal. Statements about specific companies from his account have caused their stock prices to rise or drop dramatically as traders question whether he’ll back up preferences with some kind of regulation.
However, at the end of the day, his words have primarily had the effect of diminishing respect for the office of the Presidency. This isn’t the only positive accomplishment of his term, either.
One of the other hard things about judging the first year of a Presidency is that some of the things he’s done in several important areas are merely laying the groundwork for what may or may not happen in the future.
For instance, when it comes to the Fed, he’s decided to nominate Jerome Powell when Yellen’s term expires in February. Will he be better or worse than Yellen? I don’t know… Yellen was a much better chair than I expected her to be, and I’m not as certain on how I expect him to act as I was with her.
Trump is expected to side with McConnell on prioritizing infrastructure over Paul Ryan’s desire to focus on entitlement reform in the new year. However, if there’s one thing that can be expected of Trump it’s that he’s more likely than most to do the unexpected. Whether it aligns with previous statements he’s made opposed to entitlement reform or not doesn’t seem like it would matter as much as flip flops have with previous Presidents.
First year appointments have been good, and bad
Both the best and the worst actions of his Presidency have essentially just been appointments. His appointment of Gorsuch is, in my opinion, the best thing he’s done since becoming President. One of the worst things he’s done, however, was to appoint Jeff Sessions.
However, even the Jeff Sessions thing has yet to play out. He’s talked about cracking down on states which have legalized pot, and rescinded a memo de-prioritizing it… but he’s yet to make any bold moves. The end of the Cole memo may just give Congress the incentive to act, protecting federalism not just from this administration but future ones as well. Sessions could really clamp down on legal states, and whether he does so or not he could also lead to a better drug policy arrived at through actual legislation. The jury’s out.
There are also several issues where it helps to keep in mind that it makes most sense to compare him to the average modern-day President, not my version of the perfect President. And this does tend to give him a slight advantage given just how awful many modern day Presidents have been.
When it comes to how he’s been carrying out his role as commander-in-chief, well… it’s a mixed bag. His supporters will point out gains made against ISIS. He’s increased the rate of bombing in several nations over the Obama years, but he hasn’t gotten us into any new wars… yet. He’s still got another three years to go.
But this alone almost seems like a slowdown to non-interventionists given the track record of recent Presidents. Obama bombed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Trump hasn’t added to that list. Obama also deployed our forces to places like Camaroon, Niger, and Uganda, and Trump hasn’t added to that list either. He’s expanded our military involvement overseas by mere number of bombs and raids, but not nearly as quickly as his predecessor did and within the limits of countries we were already involved in. It’s an increase, but also a slowdown in the rate of growth. If this were the budget, many with large audiences would describe it as a draconian cut all the same. Of course, this is a separate consideration from the amount of actual money we’re spending on the military, where he has called for a significant increase.
The worst parts of President Trump’s first year are what he hasn’t done
There’s plenty of negative policies on the civil liberties front he’s merely… leaving in place, from Guantanamo to warrantless spying. But these programs aren’t new, and Congress has been voting to extend programs like the Patriot Act and FISA’s 702. But essentially, some of these programs were there when he got there and will still be there when he leaves.
At the end of the day, his supporters have plenty that they could point to about his accomplishments–Gorsuch, signing the tax bill, a drastic cut in overall executive regulations. There’s plenty of failures to point to as well. The priority Congress most wanted was an end to Obamacare, and Trump despite his talk was unable to act as some super deal-maker and get it done. If anything, his words have hindered the ability to accomplish more, and he’s made the work of Congress harder. However, given that most laws passed, and most Presidential “accomplishments” are those I see as negative things, I’ll take his inability to get much accomplished as simply another positive.
The worst that he’s done, from foreign policy to civil liberties… should mean more, but I’m grading on a curve set starting 9-11-01. His major faults are related to essentially continuing policies and trajectories set by his predecessors. The longer these policies are in place, the more likely it is they’ll remain permanent as they’re increasingly normalized. But this isn’t a new course.
I cannot stand the man personally. I hate the way he speaks, his lack of morals, and how little I can trust any words out of his mouth. I don’t regret supporting Gary Johnson in the slightest, and my conscience is clear.
However, simply adding Gorsuch to tax reform to slashes in regulations to an inability to accomplish things he’d unfortunately like to, then subtract policies he’s merely continuing from the last two Presidents and his appointment of Sessions while de-prioritizing his words over his actions… he’s had the best first year of any President since Reagan. That may be damning with faint praise, but it’s given reluctantly all the same.