Donald Trump will win reelection, or not, based primarily on his performance in office. The voters will ask, in their collective judgment, such questions as: has he scored at least one major accomplishment in domestic policy? Has he maintained strong economic growth? Has he avoided major foreign policy failures? Has he presided over a major foreign policy victory? Is he scarred by scandal? Are Americans better off than they were before his inauguration? Is the country better positioned in the world?
Looking at the Trump presidency through the prism of such questions, it is possible to produce a kind of preliminary report card. Recognizing that the voters won’t render their own grades for more than a year, we can still compile a general overview of the president’s likely standing when the votes are counted. This overview suggests that he resides upon a knife’s edge of political fate. Events between now and November of next year could easily push him into defeat, though he could also squeak through to victory. But defeat is more likely.
Before we get to the report card, two general points need to be made. First, irrespective of Trump’s fate next year, he is and will remain a significant figure in American political history. He transformed the national debate by exposing the chasm in political sensibilities between the elites of the coasts and angry Americans in the heartland. In spite of his crude and often distasteful ways (and sometimes because of them), he created a tight knot of political sentiment that stands antagonistic toward the elite vision of globalism, diversity, open borders, overseas dominance, and free trade—most of it enforced with the cudgel of political correctness.
The heartland ethos, by contrast, includes an end to illegal immigration, a more restrictionist legal immigration system to foster the absorption of those already here, a trade system attuned to industrial America, realism and restraint in foreign policy, respect for the country’s cultural heritage, and a hostility to the insidious impact of identity politics.
This is a huge chasm, yet when the 2016 campaign began, hardly a politician on the scene perceived it or understood its ramifications. Trump did, and that got him (barely) elected. The result now is that we all now know about the chasm, and it will be America’s defining political pivot for years to come.
But if this political sagacity got Trump elected, it won’t help him much in 2020. Challengers can win on talk if it resonates sufficiently with the electorate; incumbents can only win on performance.
The second point is that, while the president enjoys the solid support of a highly loyal and unwavering contingent of Americans, he has proven incapable of building a governing coalition. Throughout his presidency, his approval rating, based on the aggregate numbers pulled together by the political web site FiveThirtyEight, has hovered between 39 percent and 43 percent. This doesn’t mean he can’t get up to the 50 percent or so needed for reelection. Ronald Reagan’s rating was just 45 percent at this point in his presidency, and he went on to a landslide reelection win. But Trump’s level of approval has been so consistent that it is difficult to see how he might rise above it during his final months in office.
Further, state-by-state poll numbers indicate that the president has lost considerable ground in key states needed for reelection. According to surveys conducted by the online polling firm Civiqs, his approval rating is in negative numbers in 10 states he carried in 2016, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Texas. None of the states carried by Hillary Clinton seem poised to flip to the president.
This reflects Trump’s general standing with the American people, and it means that he doesn’t have sufficient political juice to dominate the national debate on major issues and get Congress to take action. Trump supporters no doubt will blame the Democrats, as presidential loyalists always do when their man can’t get the job done. But in our presidential system, chief executives don’t get a pass by pointing fingers at the opposition.
Richard Nixon, a 43 percent victor in 1968, had to contend with a hostile Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, and still amassed a record that buoyed him to a massive reelection victory in 1972. Reagan had a hostile House Democratic majority and yet managed to galvanize the American people to such an extent that the House leadership lost control of its own chamber, as frightened Democrats crossed over to Reagan’s positions on major issues, particularly fiscal ones.
How do presidents manage to overcome a hostile opposition? By shrewdly selecting issues to be pursued; by presenting brilliant and coherent narrations on what those issues mean; and by deftly negotiating at the end to bring along just enough of the opposition to carry the day. After his Democratic Party lost both houses of Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton embarked on his brilliant “triangulation” strategy. Trump hasn’t demonstrated any such capacity.
Which brings us to the report card:
Health care: Trump failed all three of the tests for political success on this issue. He chose it before it was ripe for serious legislative action (GOP lawmakers wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare but didn’t have anything approaching a viable replacement); he didn’t explain it well because it wasn’t well joined and because he didn’t seem to understand it; and he didn’t seek any compromise with opposition members. Grade: D.
Immigration: A massive Trump failure. He was the first president in decades who had enough credibility with restrictionists to fashion a grand bargain that might have included legal status for the so-called Dreamers (and perhaps their immediate families; not cousins and uncles). He might have also taken serious action on other illegals in the country, on stemming the inward flow through every means possible, and on overhauling current immigration policies, including ending family-based migration and the lottery, instituting a merit-based system, and curbing the inflow enough to get the percentage of foreign-born people in America returned to more historical levels.
Was this even remotely possible? Perhaps not. But Trump campaigned as a man who would address the country’s festering immigration problem. That required that the issue be presented with sensitivity and clarity as to the harm that decades of neglect have done to America. Nobody wants the United States to be a heartless country, but polls also indicate that Democrats have come too close to open borders for the comfort of most. Therein was the opportunity.
But Trump didn’t even talk to the American people about the issue; he communicated only to his base, thus ensuring that the immigration chasm would continue with no end in sight. Grade: D.
Economic growth: We can’t issue a final grade here until the end of the semester, but prospects are good for solid marks, even if an A doesn’t appear likely. If growth continues through the third quarter of next year, Trump will merit a solid B; if it slows, perhaps a B-; if it picks up, a B+. But an A would require the kind of growth seen in Reagan’s last six years in office (including annual percentages of 7.9, 5.6, 4.2, 4.5, and 3.8) or Clinton’s second term (4.4, 4.5, 4.9, 4.8). That isn’t likely. Further, if the economy slips into recession, all bets are off. This is a wait-and-see category. Grade: B, based on midterms, though the final exam will determine the outcome.
Trade: Trump has taken a riverboat gamble on his trade dispute with China, which has been a commerce thug for years—stealing intellectual property, forcing U.S. companies in China to transfer technology, dumping goods into U.S. markets, subsidizing state-owned companies, and manipulating its currency. White House aide Peter Navarro says these “deadly sins” have destroyed some 70,000 factories in America and five million manufacturing jobs. China has been bilking the United States in part to cadge vast sums of money to finance its geopolitical ambitions in Asia. There’s a strong argument that something had to be done, and only Trump among recent presidents had the fortitude to join the issue.
In doing so, Trump has emphasized a central reality of American geopolitics, which his critics refuse to accept—namely that China, and not Russia, represents America’s greatest long-term threat. But will the American people and Congress accept the sacrifices that will likely be necessary to force China to change its ways? That may be difficult for the president to pull off, given his less-than-robust standing with the American people. He’s doing the right thing in demanding reciprocal trade behavior from the Chinese, but his inability to forge a national consensus may retard his prospects for success. Grade: Incomplete.
Foreign Policy: Trump has not presided over any serious foreign policy failures, such as George W. Bush’s Iraq fiasco or Barack Obama’s Libyan misadventure. Indeed, he has not led the country into any serious foreign wars at all, which may be a significant accomplishment in comparison to his three predecessors. At the same time, he has kept U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan beyond any worthwhile rationale. And he has not scored any significant foreign policy successes—nothing approaching Nixon’s outreach to China or Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords or Reagan’s Cold War breakthrough. The problem has been that he doesn’t seem to possess any kind of coherent view of the world in our time. He seems to have an instinctive understanding that the old global order is crumbling. But he doesn’t have any idea of what could or should replace this fading status quo or how America should operate in a changing world.
And Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and seek to bring Iran to its knees economically through “maximum pressure” could destabilize the entire Middle East even beyond George W. Bush’s mindless Iraq invasion. If so, the combustion likely won’t occur until after Trump’s current term, under whomever is president at the time. But the burden of responsibility for any untoward developments emanating from that questionable policy will rest firmly upon Trump. Grade: C-.
Scandal: Any serious scandal that attaches to the upper reaches of an administration becomes a net negative in the next election. It’s difficult to assess the full political impact of the Russian scandal that has roiled the nation since even before Trump was sworn in. On the one hand, the allegation of electoral “collusion” has been exposed as a fraud. On the other, opponents have continued assaulting Trump for supposedly seeking to obstruct the investigation. Their arguments are largely specious, but politics unfolds on the margin, and the marginal impact of all this is likely to redound to Trump’s detriment at reelection time. Besides, Trump doesn’t seem to care much about how he is perceived or about the old-style niceties of political discourse. That provides an opening for opposition arguments about his loose ethics. Grade: C+.
General national welfare: On those questions regarding whether Americans are better off today than they were four years ago and whether America stands taller in the world, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The economic statistics (growth, unemployment, job market participation, productivity, inflation, the stock market) are solid, stemming largely from Trump’s tax and regulatory policies. If they continue, the president will get general kudos from the electorate on this crucial area of performance.
The voters’ view of America’s global standing is more difficult to assess. No doubt Trump’s base is comfortable with his performance on the world stage, but has he conducted himself in a way that will capture those swing voters who will be crucial to his reelection prospects? It doesn’t seem likely.
And that’s reflective of the overall Trump presidency. This utterly unconventional politician who got elected in utterly unconventional ways had an opportunity to fashion an unconventional brand of conservative politics—wary of big business and the nexus between government and big finance; hostile to coastal elites; protective of working class Americans who have been abandoned and slandered by the Democratic Party; concerned about economic inequality; suspicious of vehement libertarianism; opposed to promiscuous foreign policy adventurism; anti-globalist; nationalist; and enthusiastic about the looming epic task of forging a new political order at home and a new geopolitical order in the world.
Trump has demonstrated a vague sense of this opportunity, but he never seemed to grasp its complexities and nuances or show any ability to forge a coherent strategy to make it a reality. The result: an overall grade of C. It would be a gentleman’s C if Trump were a gentleman. The question is whether the voters will grade on a curve.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.