Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN – CNN – Tuesday, December 26, 2017
President Donald Trump is probably right: he doesn’t get due credit for the volume of achievements he’s stacked up during a tumultuous political year.
But to judge his presidency so far simply on bills passed, regulations slashed, executive orders signed and campaign promises kept would be to paint a skewed picture of the most divisive and controversial new administration in generations.
While Trump’s supporters approve of his actions and crusade against the establishment status quo, a majority does not, and it is Trump’s conduct and personality, more than his list of campaign promises kept, that is dictating how his first 11 months in office are perceived.
The President has shown little sign of examining why he may not be getting full political value for a record that, contrary to his claims, is not the most glittering of any first-year president.
Trump, before leaving for his Christmas and New Years break in Florida, took a sarcastic shot at media appraisals of his record.
“With all my Administration has done on Legislative Approvals (broke Harry Truman’s Record), Regulation Cutting, Judicial Appointments, Building Military, VA, TAX CUTS & REFORM, Record Economy/Stock Market and so much more, I am sure great credit will be given by mainstream news?” he wrote on Twitter Friday.
He was still brooding on his unflattering reviews while on vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
“The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is. They show Fake Polls just like they report Fake News. Despite only negative reporting, we are doing well – nobody is going to beat us,” Trump tweeted on Christmas Eve.
A year of accomplishments
For much of the year, it appeared that Trump would end 2017 with a barren record.
But now, he has secured the most sweeping tax overhaul bill in 30 years, one that slashes the corporate rate by 14% and will give most Americans, for now at least, a bump in their paycheck.
The stock market is roaring, up 5,000 points since he took office. Gross domestic product growth was 3.3% in the third quarter after struggling along at around 2% annually while Barack Obama was President. Trump and his Republican partners have installed a new, conservative Supreme Court justice and are confirming appellate judges at a record-breaking clip. The tax deal fulfilled another Republican priority, repealing the individual mandate, a plank of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.
Trump is also in the process of hiking defense spending.
“This has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment, by any objective standard,” a satisfied Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday, reflecting on his party’s performance.
Meanwhile, Trump has fulfilled or moved toward honoring campaign commitments on ending the Iran deal, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, leaving or renegotiating multilateral free trade deals and reorienting US foreign policy with his “America First” philosophy. ISIS has been routed in Iraq and Syria. Trump’s administration has secured the toughest-ever sanctions against North Korea, which were reinforced again last week.
The administration has taken an ax to regulations, loosening government oversight in the economy and eradicating Democratic rules in areas ranging from school lunches to the number of dolphins and sea turtles who can be killed in swordfishing nets off the West Coast.
Limited appeal outside Trump’s base
So, for a fully paid-up Trump supporter and or even a Republican who has made their peace with the President’s anti-establishment crusade in the interests of a solid collection of the conservative movement goals, there is much to praise in Trump’s first year.
But a critique of Trump’s record would start with the nature of the achievements themselves, and offer a clue as to why he is not getting the plaudits he thinks he deserves. Most of Trump’s wins are partisan, many appear to be designed solely to please his political base alone, and some, like Trump’s targeting of the North American Free Trade Agreement, are radical and risky and could turn out badly.
Obama’s supporters, meanwhile, complain that on the economy and the campaign against ISIS Trump is merely piggybacking on the former President’s achievements and claiming them for himself. Trump’s transparent habit of seeking to eradicate Obama’s legacy whenever he can makes it unlikely that any Democrats will ever join him to forge bipartisan achievements that could secure the President credit outside his own dedicated supporters.
Much of the Republican agenda is almost as unpopular as the President. The tax bill, for instance, while a Trump achievement, is disliked by a majority of Americans, partly because it was described by nonpartisan studies as a huge giveaway to the rich.
But at least the tax bill is now law and difficult to overturn. Many of Trump’s attempts to reshape the economy and American life using executive power could be swept away if he is succeeded by a Democrat in 2021 or 2025, so they cannot be considered as irreversible long-term achievements.
Trump’s foreign policy is just as controversial as his record at home.
Many Americans who do not subscribe to Trump’s transactional foreign policy and nationalist populist worldview are horrified by a diplomatic strategy that they believe goes against everything the US should stand for.
His decision not to make human rights and democratic values an organizing principle of his foreign policy alienates traditionalists and his withdrawal from trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and hostility to multilateralism are seen by critics as thinning US power and influence abroad.
Trump’s immigration policies, including a much reworked ban on travelers from Muslim-majority nations, and his frequent hostile rhetorictoward Islam, sometimes come across to a broad political audience as being in conflict with foundational national values.
But even the nature of Trump’s achievements and the controversy they stir cannot fully explain why he is not getting more recognition, and why his approval rating in a CNN poll last week had sunk to 35%.
For that, you have to look at Trump’s personality, temperament and behavior — including his Twitter blasts.
For 11 months, Americans have watched the President tug at the societal, cultural and racial divisions as a method of governing. In episodes like the marching of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, or his retweets of anti-Muslim videos of a British far-right group, the President has sought discord rather than attempted to heal aggravated feelings.
Such a strategy is more likely to alienate anyone who is yet to make up their mind on Trump and his record than win him new supporters. And even in this polarized political age, the President’s failure to reach out beyond his own core power base of political support is remarkable.
The funnel cloud of anger, score-settling, political chaos and divisive rhetoric that swirls around Trump at all times also has the effect of drowning out debate about the nature of his policies and any good press that he does get.
The melodrama in the West Wing, with its firings, leaks and tensions, meanwhile, has created a picture of White House that has often struggled to implement its agenda or get out of its own way.
The constant war with the media is often an effective tactic for Trump, as he seeks to ensure no fraying of his powerful political coalition. But it fosters an atmosphere in Washington where controversy overshadows analysis of the President’s evolving legacy and Trump’s frequent assaults on objective truth also undermine not just his standing but the prestige of the presidency itself.
The feeling of hyperpartisanship and anger is also fueled by the Russia investigation and attacks by Trump on judicial and law enforcement institutions, including special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI that continued over the holiday weekend. It is not surprising, then, that Trump’s approval ratings are in the tank given that, as a first-year president, he has already seen four associates charged or plead guilty.
All of this helps explain why Trump has the worst approval rating in December of any elected President’s first year in the White House by a wide margin — only the second time since the dawn of modern polling that a President’s approval rating sank under 50% at this point. His record of achievement is simply swamped by the deeply set views many Americans harbor about him.
In the CNN poll, 59% said they disapprove of how Trump is handling his job as president. While 85% of Republicans say they are satisfied with the President’s performance, 56% of those polled said they believed that his actions had changed the country for the worse.
So, right now, what Trump is doing, and how he is doing it, displeases a majority of voters. It’s no wonder he is not getting credit he says he deserves.