There’s a bit of a phony debate breaking out about Donald Trump’s accomplishments.
On the one hand, the president himself is his usual bombastic and factually inaccurate self about what he’s done in office. In a series of tweets over the weekend, Trump claimed “perhaps no Administration has done more in its first 9 months than this Administration. Over 50 Legislation approvals, massive regulation cuts, energy freedom, pipelines, border security, 2nd Amendment, Strong Military, ISIS, historic VA improvement, Supreme Court Justice, Record Stock Market, lowest unemployment in 17 yrs!”
The obvious response is to point out the nonsense here. Some of them are real but normal achievements — Trump in fact did fill a Supreme Court vacancy, but so did Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon in their first nine months. Some of it is exaggerated hype; most of those “legislation approvals” are minor at best, while most new presidents have had a significant bill passed by this point. Some of it is just a continuation of previous trends; it’s hard to see what Trump had to do with the continued stock market rally (perhaps a bit stronger in 2017) and job creation (a bit worse so far in 2017). And, well, it’s quite impressive indeed for Trump to have passed the Second Amendment this year.
On the other hand, it is certainly true that, as with all presidents, significant and important changes are happening in how the U.S. is governed. See, for example, the excellent reporting from The New York Times on changing regulation of chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency.
So is there, as Yascha Mounk argues in Slate, “much more truth to Trump’s claim than the gleefully mocking responses to it would suggest”?
Well, no. Of course a lot of important things are happening. Republicans, after all, control the presidency and have majorities in both chambers of Congress. That’s going to have some effects. Overall, however, it’s fair to say that these effects are smaller than, say, the changes in Obama’s first nine months. Or George W. Bush’s first nine months. Or Reagan’s first nine months. Let alone Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first nine months.
Of course, that’s not much consolation if you don’t like Republican policies — especially if you are personally negatively affected by changing policy. But if what you wanted was a sweeping implementation of Trump campaign promises, or the long-standing Republican agenda, then it’s fair to say that what’s happened so far is somewhat disappointing.
Moreover, if we’re interested in what Donald Trump is getting done, the record looks even worse. The things he campaigned on that differed from the standard Republican policy mix — the border wall, a large infrastructure bill, ending trade deals — are mostly gone or, at best, in progress.
What’s actually happening is that where Trump selected capable people for executive-branch departments and agencies that reflected standard conservative Republican priorities and preferences, that conservative agenda is being implemented. The best example is the EPA, where administrator Scott Pruitt knows the issues well and is committed to change. Where Trump hasn’t done that, it’s not happening.
Meanwhile, hardly anything is going on so far legislatively, in part because Trump has been inept at working with his own party in Congress.
All of this could change. But so far, it’s simply not true that the amount of change during the Trump presidency is particularly impressive or unusual.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Readers may email him at email@example.com.
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