Originally appeared in The New York Times.
The overbearing persona of President Trump dominated 2017. From his angry early morning tweets to the stain of corruption bleeding into his administration to the sharp rightward tilt in his governing philosophy, Mr. Trump in his first year in office could not stand in starker contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama. Meanwhile, strong economic performance in 2017 — a legacy for which Mr. Trump should thank Mr. Obama — masked the reality that the new president failed to propose or carry out any significant policies that would help the white working-class Americans who helped elect him.
Trump’s Dismal First Year
The divisive campaign waged by Mr. Trump and his harsh inaugural address put him in office with the poorest approval ratings of any recent president. From that inauspicious beginning, his ratings continued to tumble, as a result of his numerous false and sometimes racially charged statements, his often unpopular policy initiatives and allegations regarding Russian meddling in the election. Of course, many new presidents see their approval ratings fall in their first year as the postelection glow begins to fade. But because of his poor start, Mr. Trump is distinguished as being the only president to finish his first year with more Americans disapproving of his performance than approving of it.
The Partisan Abyss
Surprisingly, Mr. Trump chose to pitch his young presidency toward his base, in contrast to most new presidents who try to reach out to those who did not vote for them, particularly moderates. As a result, Mr. Trump has remained as popular within his own party as his predecessors but more unpopular among the opposition party than previous presidents. The fear of a Trump counterpunch or worse, a primary challenge, as well as a strong desire to pass at least some Republican legislative priorities such as tax cuts, has helped keep Republican senators and representatives from criticizing him. And for all his unpopularity, most observers (including me) believe that the president will complete his first term, as the prediction markets indicate.
Ignore the Bragging. Trump’s Presidency Has Not Been Productive.
“There has never been a 10-month president that has accomplished what we have accomplished,” Mr. Trump said on Nov. 29 in what he described as a “non-braggadocious way.” That was a lie. The number of bills signed by Mr. Trump in his first 337 days was lower than any president since at least Dwight Eisenhower. And most of those bills were minor, except, of course, for the tax bill, passed just before the Christmas holiday. Apart from the legislative front, Mr. Trump was also slow to staff his administration, while many of his campaign promises — from a $1 trillion infrastructure program to the famed border wall — remain unfulfilled.
A Fresh Windfall for the Rich
Time will tell whether Mr. Trump’s signature tax bill will be judged a success. It was rushed to a vote after extraordinarily little debate. It will vastly reward corporate America, largely by adding at least $1.4 trillion — and likely, much more — to the national debt. It will confer embarrassingly modest benefits on middle- and working-class Americans relative to what will be received by the wealthy. While America’s corporate tax code was in desperate need of revamping, the lack of any meaningful effort to eliminate corporate loopholes suggested that far from draining the swamp, Mr. Trump embraced it. So far, the American people aren’t fooled; this appalling piece of legislation has the lowest approval rating of any major bill passed since 1990.
Give Trump Some Credit: Bumps in Economic Confidence
To be sure, Mr. Trump’s arrival was accompanied by a significant jump in business optimism and a more modest rise in consumer confidence. The improvement in sentiment in the private sector shouldn’t be shocking: If you had been told that you would receive a huge tax cut and be freed from thousands of government regulations, wouldn’t you feel better about your business? As for consumers, their improved mood since the election represents a continuation of a trend that began in 2009 as the floodwaters of the financial crisis were starting to recede. But interestingly, immediately after the election Democrats became more pessimistic about the economy while Republicans became more optimistic.
The Global Economy Is in Its Best Shape in Decades
Figuring out how much credit Mr. Trump deserves for the rise in the stock market is complicated. For one thing, at long last, the world economy is firing on all cylinders — perhaps not as strongly as we would like in the United States and Europe, but moving upward nonetheless. In fact, only six countries are expected to be in recession in 2018, the smallest number on record. Growing economies have helped propel corporate profits and thus stock markets upward worldwide. So while Mr. Trump’s emphasis on business-friendly policies has helped turbocharge the American stock market, we are hardly alone in enjoying rising share prices. And let’s not forget that markets rose more during President Obama’s first 11 months in office (37 percent for the S.&.P. 500 versus 18 percent for Mr. Trump).
What Trump Hasn’t Helped: American Jobs
What’s clear is that Mr. Trump deserves little or no credit for the continuing economic and job growth in the United States, despite his frequent claims to the contrary. On Sept. 19, he declared that “companies are moving back, creating job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time.” Not true. The rate of job increases has actually slowed since Mr. Trump was inaugurated, by about 44,000 jobs a month. As for Mr. Trump’s claim that the current 3.3 percent rate of growth in the gross domestic product “is the largest increase in many years,” that is false as well; President Obama achieved similar or higher increases in six quarters of his administration.
Wages: Continued Stagnation for Millions
Donald Trump won election in large part by riding the wave of discontent among working-class Americans over their wages, which, after adjustment for inflation, have been largely stagnant or have even shrunk since the onset of the financial crisis and ensuing recession. (The brief period of seemingly rising wages in 2009 was a function of declining prices, not higher incomes.) In late 2014, as labor markets began to tighten, employers trying to hire were compelled to increase pay by more than inflation. But since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, this improvement has ebbed and real incomes again have been barely edging upward faster than prices.
Needless Human Toll
While the Republicans failed in their frontal attack on the Affordable Care Act, they managed a flanking victory by wedging a provision into the new tax bill repealing the requirement that all Americans purchase or otherwise obtain health insurance. That requirement was a key component of Obamacare because it ensured that insurance companies had a supply of healthy customers along with those in greater need of medical care. As a consequence, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, 13 million fewer Americans than previously projected will likely have coverage in 2025. To put that in perspective, before its disfiguration, the A.C.A. was projected to add 34 million to the insurance rolls by 2025. And the news gets worse: The new provision is expected to increase premiums quickly by 10 percent, a jump that will come on top of the premium increases resulting from the Trump administration’s cancellation of payments to reduce insurance costs.
More and Whiter Judges from Trump:
While the new administration has struggled to advance its legislative priorities, it has (unfortunately) excelled at another of its responsibilities: appointing judges. While it has a poor record in filling executive branch positions, the Trump team has outshone the Obama administration in both putting forth candidates for the bench and getting them confirmed. The latter accomplishment got a big assist from a procedural change put in place by the Senate Democrats during Mr. Obama’s second term that reduced the number of votes required from 60 to a simple majority. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump’s nominees are more likely to be white than those of any president since Ronald Reagan. He has also nominated a startling four candidates for the judiciary rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association, and three of his nominees have already had to be withdrawn. Finally, Mr. Trump’s nominees to these lifetime positions are relatively young, effectively tilting the ideological balance of the federal courts for decades to come.