Politics & Policy

Trump’s First Year: First, the Good News

President Trump delivers his inaugural address, January 20, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Taking stock of a busy and unusual presidency.

This week marks one year since Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. If you follow politics, you can be forgiven for feeling as if it’s been a lot longer than that, given Trump’s penchant for generating drama, distorting the reality of his supporters, and inciting madness in his detractors. But after a year in office, we can start judging presidents on their records and not just our predictions of what they might do.

Trump deserves most of the blame for the bad parts of his record, for good reason: They usually involve Trump personally saying or doing something in the public eye. While much of the positive progress involves a lot more work by key aides and in some cases congressional allies, however, it’s worth remembering that the administration ultimately answers to the president, and its staffers all owe their jobs to him. So, while we’re blaming Trump for his own shenanigans, let’s not begrudge him the credit where credit is due to people he’s appointed.

On the whole, it’s been a good, not a great, first year on matters of policy — but the bill has only begun to come due on the political and moral price to Republicans and conservatives, and the cost to the nation’s institutions, from Trump’s tenure. As a result, no positive grades for his presidency can be awarded without some very big asterisks. Over this three-part series, I’ll take a look at the top ten things Trump and his administration have produced to make conservatives and Republicans happy, miserable, and scared of the future. Today: the good news.

The Good News

If you focus on the positive side of the ledger, the Trump administration has not been short on good news for conservatives. Let’s count ten ways:

One: Justice Gorsuch & Co. If there’s one area where Trump has kept his promises, exceeded the expectations of conservative critics (myself included), and properly focused on long-term policy gains, it’s the judiciary, starting with his A+ selection of Neil Gorsuch to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Trump has, with the help of Mitch McConnell, gotten appellate judges confirmed at a historic clip, and while his judicial-selection team has had a few misfires who were underqualified or had sketchy opinions, Trump’s judges at all levels have predominantly been in sync with a conservative judicial philosophy. While I remain skeptical of Trump’s very-late-in-life conversion to the conservative side on many social issues and even more skeptical of his respect for the rule of law, he has clearly — so far — decided that keeping social conservatives happy on this crucial front is a priority. That’s all good, and, more so than any other good thing Trump has done, it will long outlast his presidency.

Two: Tax cuts. After a long year of legislative frustration, the GOP tax bill was a big shot in the arm to Republican morale, and a major positive for the economy going forward. The bill itself was a compromise, so not what I or really anyone else would have written from scratch, but its business tax cuts are a long-overdue pro-growth step, and the moves in the direction of larger child tax credits and caps on the use of large deductions for mortgages and state and local taxes for high-income taxpayers are welcome steps towards a fairer tax code. It even got rid of the hated Obamacare mandate, a policy so unpopular that Obama himself had campaigned against it in the 2008 Democratic primaries. In a bad year for Republican health-care policy, that’s a plus.

Three: Regulatory relief. Trump’s administration has moved on numerous fronts — from net neutrality to environmental regulations — to reduce regulatory burdens on the economy. Most of those steps can be undone by the next administration — but not all, given the use by this Congress of the Congressional Review Act to enact legal barriers to several of the Obama administration’s last-year regulatory initiatives.

While presidents in general, and presidents in their first year in office in particular, tend to get too much credit and too much blame for the economy, the combination of promised (then delivered) corporate tax cuts and relief from regulatory burdens has undoubtedly contributed to a booming stock market and some fairly solid economic growth in Trump’s first year.

Four: A Strong Defense Posture. Trump’s campaign embraced a Michael Moore/Howard Zinn view of American defense policy: Every bad thing was the fault of Americans standing up for American interests abroad. It was also most charitably described as dangerously naïve about Russia. But the current national-security team doesn’t just include a lot of serious people, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and national-security adviser H. R. McMaster. It has also pursued a serious posture on defense and security issues across the board, which among other things has produced the eradication of ISIS’s hold on territory and forced North Korea of late into a more conciliatory posture towards the South. There are many hard calls ahead, and Trump’s mouth may make some of them harder than they should be, but so far, the administration’s bite has mattered more than its bark, and that’s a good thing.

Five: Executive Modesty. Yes, “modesty” is maybe the strangest word one could associate with Donald Trump, but his administration has frequently done the strangest of all things in Washington: renounce power. In multiple areas, the administration has taken a narrow view of executive powers over domestic policy. On immigration, not only has the administration renounced Obama’s unilateral arrogation of legislative power in DACA and DAPA, it has avoided substituting its own policy in place of it, instead pushing the lawmaking role back to Congress in search of a (perhaps elusive) bipartisan compromise. On net neutrality, it has done the same thing. Even Jeff Sessions’s announcement of his intention to reinvigorate enforcement of the marijuana laws is a statement that the job of deciding which laws to repeal is for Congress, not the Justice Department. After eight years of Obama’s relentless expansion of executive power over legislative and judicial functions while picking and choosing which Acts of Congress to actually enforce, it’s been refreshing to see a presidency that, for whatever reasons, doesn’t want the president making laws for the whole country on his own.

Six: Paris. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords was a bold step, and one that in even the most conservative Republican administration would have provoked ferocious internal debate. But Trump pulled the trigger, collapsing a symbolic sham of an agreement that ill-served American interests. The contrast to the prior administration’s literally chasing the Chinese delegation to beg them to sign something is a dramatic one.

Seven: Downfall of the Bannonites. Given how many leading Republicans were excluded from this administration, either by choice or because they were blackballed for having taken public, principled stands against Trump, the administration at the outset looked like it might end up as a sort of Island of Misfit Toys. But along the way, a lot of the worst people on the team — especially those loyal to Steve Bannon and his ideological commitments — have washed out, leaving the team around the president looking much more like a conventional Republican administration. Bannon himself has been humiliated, defunded, declared insane by Trump, and defenestrated from Breitbart; Michael Flynn has been prosecuted; Sebastian Gorka has left the building; and the vision of a wholesale restructuring of the GOP around trillion-dollar infrastructure bills, isolationism, and trade wars is mostly history.

Trump himself remains, as do such true believers as Stephen Miller and Julia Hahn. But below the president, the policymaking team is far more the kind of people Mike Pence would choose than the kind of people who would get invited to an alt-right convention.

Eight: Immigration. I don’t count myself an immigration restrictionist, and I’m hesitant to give too much credit for permanence to the immigration steps taken thus far by the Trump administration: No deal has been struck yet in Congress, no Supreme Court decision has settled the refugee controversy, no wall has been built. Nor have the administration’s actions been nearly as large a break with the Obama record as either side would have you believe. But without question, for now, the tide of federal policymaking has shifted in a direction that should please the restrictionists, and that’s a direct consequence of Trump’s election, followed through in practice.

Tax cuts and regulatory relief have undoubtedly contributed to some fairly solid economic growth.

Nine: Culture War. The federal government shouldn’t be the front lines of culture-war issues, but it is, and the Trump administration has taken stances across many areas — from life and religious liberty to due process for men on campus accused of sexual assault — that show conservatives that elections have consequences.

Ten: Jerusalem. The decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel, eventually, to Jerusalem is more symbolic than anything, and will still take some time to carry out, time enough that a successor administration might yet frustrate it. But give Trump credit: It’s been two decades since Congress passed a law directing that this action be taken, and subsequent administrations of both parties have offered empty promises while going wobbly before pulling the trigger. Trump, unconcerned as he is with how his actions look, finally did it.

Tomorrow: the bad news.


Donald Trump’s First Year in Office: A Solid Start

Give Trump Credit Where It’s Due

Who Deserves Credit for the Trump Administration’s Victories?


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