White House

What President Trump Has Accomplished

Even if the tax bill passes, he isn't much of a doer.

In the picture.

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the Republican tax bill likely to pass this week, it's not surprising that we're starting to see some claims of, Hey, wait, Trump had a productive first year after all! See, for example, Byron York at the Washington Examiner; the beginning of this piece by anti-Trumper Jay Cost at National Review; and to a lesser extent Ross Douthat's Sunday New York Times column, which focuses on the war against Islamic State. 

Don't buy these claims.

Yes, it's certainly true that conservative Republicans have plenty to be happy about. That's what happens during periods of unified Republican government! To say that Republicans have actually accomplished things is only to knock down a straw man -- no one really believes nothing at all happened this year.

But assessing presidential accomplishments is more difficult, and to say (as York does) that "Donald Trump has gotten a lot done" isn't really correct.

The first important point, if we're evaluating Trump's year (and not the entire government) is to separate what Trump has done from what others have done. The urge to conflate them is hardly unique to this president or his supporters. Leafing through the Sunday New York Times, I see four pages under the rubric, "THE 45TH PRESIDENT Congress and Taxes." What follows is all about what Republicans in Congress are up to, with barely a mention of Trump.

That's unsurprising, since Trump and his administration had little input into the tax bill. As NBC's Benjy Sarlin noted, the GOP tax bill, like the failed GOP health bill before it, is in many details the opposite of what Trump has said he would do, both as a candidate and after the election. Trump campaign priorities that deviated from regular Republican rhetoric -- a border wall, major changes in trade treaties, infrastructure spending -- have mostly been ignored or limited to symbolic action. 1   

It's also important, when counting presidential accomplishments, to establish a realistic baseline. That entails both comparisons with other presidencies, and keeping in mind the particular opportunities available to this particular president. 

For example, crediting Trump with the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and a record 12 circuit court judges is fair -- the nominations are certainly things that Trump did himself. But it's also overly generous. For one thing, there's nothing special about a president putting a new Justice on the Supreme Court: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower all did the same in their first year. What they all had in common, and what George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter lacked, was a Supreme Court vacancy.

That's also true of circuit court seats. Trump had extra vacancies because the Republican Senate chose to ignore Barack Obama's nominations in 2015 and 2016. In other words, Gorsuch and the other judges owe more to Mitch McConnell's Senate leadership than to Trump's presidency. Trump certainly deserves credit for nominating judges relatively quickly for the openings he had, but he also has three failed nominations so far on his ledger, a high count for a first-year president. Obama didn't have any failed judicial nominations in 2009. 

Apportioning credit for "defeat[ing] ISIS," as York also does, is similarly complicated. Douthat's case for Trump warranting credit seems fair to me -- if we read Trump's main contribution being not messing things up. (That's not sarcasm: Avoiding messing up something that's working but tenuous is a real accomplishment for incoming presidents). While York doesn't raise the economy as an accomplishment, and presidential influence over economic performance is typically overstated, it's not unfair to say the same about Trump in that sphere as well, at least so far. 

So does Trump have a "solid record of first-year accomplishments"? Well, no, he doesn't. Even assuming the tax bill passes, and even if we apportion a very generous share of the responsibility to Trump, it still leaves an unusually small list of legislative successes. He's trimmed regulations, but as Bloomberg's Alan Levin and Jesse Hamilton reported, there's a lot less there than Trump has claimed. He's certainly made some important changes by executive action, but many are standard-issue fare that happens whenever a Republican president replaces a Democrat. Other executive proclamations are symbolic or aspirational rather than substantive. In other words, we'll have to wait to see if anything comes of them or not. 2

It's true both that elections affect what the government does, and that policy change is difficult in a system that makes it hard to dislodge the status quo. Go back to November 2016 and you see unrealistic hopes and fears that a unified Republican government would rapidly enact all its policy preferences. Likewise, it's easy to jump from such overblown expectations to an equally unreal conclusion that no policy change occurred at all.

The truth is, some elements of the Republican agenda and Trump's wish list have happened, others are in progress, and others have stalled. Still, by any historical standard, Trump simply hasn't had a very productive first year. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Trump did withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but ratification was pretty much dead anyway.

  2. Don't forget that executive actions, too, can sometimes be more properly attributed to others, and not to the president who issues them. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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