Supporters of Donald Trump complain, with some legitimacy, that coverage of his presidency focuses more on his personal controversies and the Russia investigation than on his substantive achievements. Despite self-created distractions and low approval ratings, the 45th president has presided over a consequential presidency.
Historians will likely fault his chaotic governing style, his use of the Oval Office megaphone to trash opponents, his ethical transgressions and his assaults on institutions like the judiciary and the press. But they will also consider the extent his actions benefited or damaged the country.
Through force of personality and Republican control of Congress, Trump produced a record on taxes, deregulation and judicial appointments that will resonate beyond his presidency, even if his successors reverse some moves and disdain his leadership style.
The White House website lists 53 administration accomplishments; nearly half relate to the economy — including record-low unemployment for six separate groups — increased coal, natural gas and overall exports, and his tariffs on steel, aluminum and China. Others cite incomplete initiatives like the Space Force and the Southern border wall.
Here is my look at Trump’s midterm record:
• Judicial appointments: Trump’s biggest achievement, with the longest lasting impact. The Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court justices, 30 Court of Appeals judges and 53 District Court judges. They will maintain his influence far beyond his presidency.
• Tax cuts: His biggest legislative victory had less political and economic impact than expected, because corporations and the wealthy got its main benefits. Critics say its timing may ultimately backfire, since passage during economic expansion removes a potential tool in event of recession.
• The economy: The expanding economy Trump inherited has continued, creating 4.3 million private sector jobs in 22 months (roughly comparable to the 4.48 million in Barack Obama’s last 22 months). Unemployment hit record lows, and the gross domestic product surged in 2018’s second quarter to 4.2 percent.
• Trade: Trump raised tariffs from allies and foes, hoping to spur trade deals but threatening global and domestic economic dislocations. He hailed a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, though experts saw little difference from the previous NAFTA treaty, and congressional approval is uncertain. The trade deficit continued to rise.
• Regulatory reform: The business community and conservatives applauded moves by Trump agency appointees as spurring economic growth. Environmentalists and public interest groups say many weakened the government’s ability to protect Americans.
• Immigration: Trump abandoned campaign promised to make Mexico pay for a border wall, and Congress rejected most funding, providing lesser amounts to fix existing barriers. Illegal immigration fell modestly. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy created border crises and spurred court challenges.
Health care: Trump promised “great health care,” but concentrated mainly on weakening and repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. After failing legislatively, a federal court ruling could kill the act if the Supreme Court agrees. But the legislative and judicial outlook remain uncertain.
• Clearing the swamp: Trump undercut his pledges to end cozy relations between government and private interests by appointing officials from industries they were supposed to regulate. Several were forced to resign, while others were accused of flouting ethical rules or administrative requirements. Trump and his family retained properties and investments from which they continue to benefit financially.
• Budget deficit: Trump didn’t try to cut the deficit, which rose from $666 billion in fiscal 2017 to $779 billion in fiscal 2018, mainly from the tax cuts and increased spending.
• Korea: After meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump said they agreed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. U.S. intelligence sees no signs of Korean compliance, but they plan another meeting in 2019.
• Russia: At their Helsinki summit, Trump pointedly declined to blame Vladimir Putin for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation provoked repeated Trump denunciations, but has already resulted in indictments of five top campaign officials or advisers and numerous Russian operatives.
• U.S. allies: Trump strained relations by withdrawing from trade agreements and climate-control treaties, continually criticizing their financial support of NATO and defense spending, and placing tariffs on their exports of steel, aluminum and other products to the United States.
• Middle East: Trump fulfilled campaign pledges to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, building closer ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia. His refusal to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his role in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi drew worldwide criticism, and he has yet to propose his promised Mideast peace plan. Making a questionable claim of victory over Islamic State, he said he would remove U.S. troops from Syria and threatened similar action in Afghanistan.
• Job approval: Elected with 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, Trump failed to expand his base and is the first modern president whose job approval never reached 50 percent, averaging between the upper 30s and lower 40s.
• Midterm elections: He helped Republicans keep the Senate but his party lost the House, as Democrats achieved the biggest popular vote margin of any recent midterm election.
The bottom line: “No one has ever done so much in the first two years of an administration,” Trump said Nov. 29 in Biloxi, Miss. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933-34 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in 1964-66 hold the historic standard for first-term achievements. Like Trump, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barrack Obama all had significant successes.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.