In the 500 days since he entered the White House, President Trump has made more progress than his critics had expected towards achieving his campaign goal of “Making America Great Again.” One-third of the way through his first term in office, Trump has been surprisingly successful in beginning to implement many of the fundamental policy changes he promised when he ran for office.
Trump’s most dramatic success so far has been in jump-starting the American economy by pushing through dramatic tax cuts on American businesses, investors and entrepreneurs and slashing excess federal regulations which were stifling growth. Even before he took office, Trump began fighting to reverse the wholesale loss of American factories and jobs to unfair foreign competition. He has defied widespread criticism, even within his administration, for controversial measures such as imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and demanding that China fully open its markets to American goods and stop the stealing of American technology and intellectual property.
Trump’s supply-side, market-based policies have already had a noticeable effect in boosting the feeble growth rate of the American economy. His policies have brought down nationwide unemployment to the lowest level in 18 years. The greatest beneficiaries have been the millions of discouraged workers who dropped out of the labor force during the Obama years, as well as chronically unemployed low-wage, poorly-educated and minority workers. Defying the experts, the American economy is now on track to double its rate of expansion to 4% or more in the second quarter of this year, boosting business and consumer confidence in the future of the US economy to historic highs.
Corporate profits are soaring, and most lower-to-middle income consumers are also benefitting from a modest reduction in their payroll tax rates and an increase in the standard deduction and child care credits.
MORE THAN ENOUGH JOBS TO GO AROUND
Small businesses are booming. Their main problem is finding enough qualified workers to hire, leading to prospects for accelerating wage growth, even at the lower end of the education and experience scales. Average wages are already increasing faster for rank-and-file workers than managers.
The jobless rate in May fell to 3.8%. The last time the jobless rate was lower than that was in 1969. The jobless rates for blacks is the lowest ever, as is the disparity in wages between blacks and whites. In addition, the so-called “real” U-6 monthly unemployment rate, which also counts discouraged and underemployed workers, was down to 7.3%, down from 8.1% a year earlier. Almost anyone who wants a job in this economy can find one, even if they don’t have much education or experience. Another indication of rising incomes: since Donald Trump’s inauguration, almost two million people have dropped off the food stamp rolls.
Re-asserting America’s economic interests, Trump has insisted upon the re-negotiation of unfair free trade deals, such as NAFTA and TPP, which put American businesses at an extreme disadvantage to foreign competitors. He has also been successful in pressuring America’s allies around the world to meet their treaty obligations by paying their fair share of the cost of their own defense.
RESTORING AMERICAN LEADERSHIP ABROAD
In the field of foreign policy, Trump has restored respect for US strength and leadership. Trump has imposed his own priorities on American foreign policy by fulfilling his campaign promises to recognize Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel and moving its embassy there.
In sharp contrast to Obama’s timidity, Trump boldly faced down threats to the US and its allies around the world. Trump used overwhelming US military force to crush ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and, in conjunction with Britain and France, punished Syria’s President Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians. During his short time in office, Trump has proven that the US once again has a leader who means what he says, who won’t be easily forced to back down under pressure, and whose promises must be taken seriously.
While beginning the process of vastly strengthening the long-neglected US military, Trump has begun to push back against the threats of military expansionism posed by Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Western Pacific. Most recently, Trump defied the advice of the foreign policy establishment by walking away from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and boldly confronting the leader of North Korea, forcing him to back down by asking for a historic summit with Trump at Singapore on June 12.
On the domestic policy front, Trump has been able to put a conservative Republican stamp on the federal judiciary. The first major legislative success of his presidency was the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the US Supreme Court. Since then, Senate Republicans have installed scores of conservative judges to vacancies on federal district, circuit and appeals courts across the nation, limiting the opportunities for liberals to seek politically biased rulings from activist judges.
Trump has had a more mixed results in his efforts to reverse Barack Obama’s presidential legacy of liberal domestic policies. He suffered his first major legislative defeat with the failure of attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, largely due to the failure of the Republican congressional leadership to create a consensus among their members in the House and Senate behind a single plan to replace the current Obamacare system. A provision in the Trump tax cut legislation which passed in December did away with the tax penalty for the individual mandate starting in 2019, and Trump’s Health and Human Services Department has adopted regulations which will make it easier for families and individuals who cannot afford the overpriced Obamacare plans to buy cheaper, temporary health coverage, but the original system remains in place, at least for now.
ROLLING BACK OBAMA ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES
Trump has had more success in reversing Obama-era policies which were never enacted by Congress into law. This is particularly true in the realm of environmental policy. Trump began by keeping a campaign promise to reverse Obama’s agreement to the Paris climate change accords, which would have imposed severe greenhouse gas emission restrictions on US industry. Trump has rolled back Obama-era regulations that would have required the closure of coal-powered electricity plants around country, throwing tens of thousands of miners out of work and as well as causing significantly higher electricity costs. Trump has also ordered the review of unrealistic new average gas mileage requirements on American automobile manufacturers imposed by Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump has also kept his promise to encourage US energy independence by approving long-delayed oil pipeline construction, and by opening vast new domestic areas to exploration for oil and natural gas drilling. Thanks to these policies, the US is now the world’s largest producer of crude oil, exceeding the output of Saudi Arabia and Russia. The US has also become a world leader in the production of domestic natural gas and has begun to export liquefied natural gas to other nations around the world. In addition to generating income that reduces the chronic US balance of payments deficit, energy independence has freed the US to pursue a far more independent foreign policy toward the major oil exporters in the Middle East and has significantly reduced price spikes to US consumers for gasoline at the pump, and fuel to heat their homes.
Liberal environmentalists have challenged many of Trump’s regulatory and policy changes in federal court, but the momentum of Obama’s radical climate change agenda has been broken. Over time, most, if not all of Trump’s common-sense policy changes are expected to be upheld.
In a nationwide television ad campaign, billionaire liberal environmental activist Tom Steyer has cited Trump’s environmental policies as justification for his impeachment. But as Trump’s policies have become more popular in recent months, some political advisors have warned Democrats against running a midterm election campaign based primarily on demands for Trump’s impeachment. It risks alienating independent and moderate Democrat voters who believe that Trump has been a much more effective president than they had initially expected.
STUMBLING ON THE FOREIGN VISITOR BAN
Trump had less success in implementing his proposed temporary ban on the entry of all visitors from seven majority Muslim and terrorist-infested countries, and his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico to halt the flow of illegal immigrants, including dangerous criminals and drug smugglers.
Part of the problem with the temporary ban was the hasty and ill-prepared way in which Trump first tried to implement it. It was announced without proper consultation with members of Congress or preparation at major airport points of entry, creating the appearance of chaos, insensitivity and incompetence during the early days of Trump’s administration.
The images of foreign nationals holding valid travel documents being turned back upon landing at US airports and demonstrations protesting the ban had a negative effect on the public image of Trump’s presidency. His liberal opponents challenged the ban’s legality, claiming that it was an expression of Trump’s alleged bias against Muslims, and the ban was quickly suspended by injunctions issued by several different federal court judges.
SABOTAGE BY OBAMA HOLDOVERS
Another problem which arose repeatedly during the early months of the Trump administration was the deliberate sabotage of the president’s agenda and policies by Obama holdovers who were still running large segments of the federal government. When liberal immigration activist attorneys began filing challenges to Trump’s immigration ban in federal courts, acting Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo to Justice Department lawyers saying that in her opinion, Trump’s ban was illegal, and that the Justice Department lawyers should not feel obligated to defend it. Trump then fired Yates from her post for insubordination, which instantly made her into a hero to the liberal anti-Trump “resistance” movement.
Several days earlier, Yates warned the Trump White House counsel Don McGahn that FBI intercepts of phone conversations indicated that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied when he told Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss the sanctions that President Obama had placed on Russian and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. Flynn was fired a few weeks later by Trump for misleading Pence, and would eventually be prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller for lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
The public controversy over Flynn was driven by anonymous leaks of classified information to the Washington Post or the New York Times, presumably originating from other disgruntled holdovers from the Obama administration like Yates. Several other members of the Trump team were subjected to similar embarrassing revelations of classified information to the media from unidentified sources. The leaks continued for as long as the Obama holdovers remained at their posts after the Trump administration took over. The period of leaks was further extended because Democrats in the Senate, as a deliberate delaying tactic, stretched out the confirmation process for every Trump nominee to a senior position in his administration.
Later efforts by the Trump administration to revise the ban to remove the appearance of an anti-Muslim bias did not succeed in getting the injunctions overturned. The ban never took effect, and the legal case is still working its way up to the US Supreme Court for a final resolution.
Trump also made the mistake of relying on the GOP congressional leadership to implement the process drafting an Obamacare repeal and replacement bill which could pass the House and Senate over what was certain to be united Democrat opposition. The president soon discovered that, despite years of opposing Obamacare, Republican leaders had never formulated a single replacement plan that they could unite behind and explain to the American public.
TRUMP NEVER GOT A PRESIDENTIAL HONEYMOON
Every new president to encounters start-up problems when he takes office, and Donald Trump was no exception. But most new presidents are given a “honeymoon period” of a few months by the mainstream media and the Washington establishment as he and his team adjust to the pressure of running the federal government on a day-to-day basis. But Trump faced much more difficulty than most new presidents, because the Clinton supporters who dominated the liberal mainstream media were openly hostile to him starting on the morning after he won the election. In addition, with the exception of Vice President Pence, Trump and most of the members of his White House team had little or no prior experience in Washington or the White House. Initially, Trump relied on people from the Republican National Committee to convey policy to a hostile White House press corps and ride herd over an undisciplined crew of Trump advisors ranging from Steve Bannon to Jared Kushner.
It took months of trial and error for Trump to find the right people for his White House operation and give them the authority they needed to get it to run smoothly. That process was further complicated by Trump’s tweeting communications style and his spontaneous statements which sometimes did not stand up well under the intense scrutiny of partisan media fact checkers. There was a lot of turnover both inside the White House team and within the cabinet, with the media headlining every rumor of internal dissension and constantly speculating about who would be the next to go.
Gradually, the right people were put in place, beginning with the appointment of former Marine Corps General John Kelly to impose the necessary discipline on the unruly White House operation, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who proved her mettle during the presidential campaign, as the chief White House spokesperson.
BECOMING HIS OWN CHIEF ADVISOR
Trump learned from the mistake he made in relying on Congressional leaders, which resulted in the failure to repeal Obamacare. The president took a much more direct role in outlining the main features of the tax cut bill and selling it to the American people, even though its final details were left to House and Senate Republicans to hammer out. The tax cut has been Trump’s most successful domestic policy innovation to date, adding to his confidence in his ability to do the job.
Trump also gradually learned to trust his own instincts and experience from the worlds of business and media entertainment in becoming his own chief strategist on foreign policy. Trump fired Steve Bannon because he was a major source of internal dissension over policy within the White House, in addition to being a frequent target of criticism from the mainstream media.
Trump was never able to develop a close working relationship with his initial pick as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and often found himself at odds with the opinions of General H.R. McMaster, the man he chose to replace Mike Flynn as national security advisor. It was not until Trump appointed two men who more closely shared his worldview, John Bolton as national security advisor and former CIA director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, that he felt confident in his foreign policy team. They helped give him the courage and confidence to follow his instincts to implement his latest, unconventional foreign policy moves.
DEVELOPING NEW POLICY APPROACHES
These include the move of the US embassy to Yerushalayim, the decision to walk away from the existing Iran nuclear deal, despite strong objections from the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, and to reimpose tough US economic sanctions, as well as the dramatic moves which resulted in the cancellation and subsequent reconfirmation of plans for the July 12 summit with North Korea. All of these decisions were highly controversial and went counter to the consensus of post-Cold War rules established by the foreign policy “establishment.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump had argued that those rules had become obsolete. They led to the repeated failure of US foreign policy to deal with the challenges posed by a nuclearized Iran and North Korea, and the unchecked aggressive ambitions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the leaders of China. Everyone knew that the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama had each failed, but nobody expected a political and diplomatic novice like Donald Trump to come up with an approach that could deal with the new realities.
Trump has also become more confident in the pursuit of his international commerce and economic policies. The populist “America First” policies Trump campaigned upon for president, in which he promised to retrieve the millions of lost jobs from America’s manufacturing economy, were widely criticized by the dominant post-World War school of global free traders as “protectionist” and short-sighted. As so many other members of the political establishment had done, these economists assumed that once he was in office, Trump would revert to the consensus view which obligated the US to continue sacrificing its own interests to promote the global trading system. Those economists included Gary Cohn, a liberal Democrat and the former head of Goldman Sachs, who played a key role in formulating Trump’s tax cut plan and generating widespread support for it in business and financial circles.
But Cohn argued against Trump’s proposal to slap tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, not just from China, which was the main international culprit responsible for the dumping of those key industrial materials, but also from much closer US allies, including Mexico, Canada and the EU. When Cohn couldn’t convince Trump to drop the tariffs against those allies, he resigned as Trump’s chief economic advisor. Trump then reached out to an old friend, Larry Kudlow, a conservative economic advisor in the Reagan White House, who had also done some work during the 2016 campaign in helping to formulate Trump’s original tax plan. Kudlow accepted Trump’s invitation, even though he was an outspoken advocate for free trade.
When reporters asked him whether he was still opposed in principal to tariffs, Kudlow said yes. He then explained that Trump’s tariff announcement had to be seen as an opening position in a much more wide-ranging discussion of trade between the US and its partners, which includes the mutual sharing of defense costs, the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, environmental goals and other related economic issues. Trump sees them all as different facets of the larger relationship between US and its trading partners and is willing to trade off one facet against the others as necessary.
THE MASTER DEAL MAKER AT WORK
Trump has always claimed to be a deal maker. When he sits down at a table to make a deal, he believes that all options must be on the table, including getting up from the table and walking away, if the deal isn’t right.
Trump is not afraid to threaten to use that option against China or any other US trade partner which has a net trade surplus with the US. That is why Trump says that it would be easy for the US to win any trade war. All the US would have to do is get up from the negotiating table and walk away.
Trump has scored other significant victories along the way. One of them is the agreement reached with Democrat congressional leaders to do away for the next two years with the limits on federal spending imposed by the sequester agreement reached by House Republicans with President Obama, which imposed a mandatory spending cap on both defense spending and discretionary domestic social welfare programs.
RESTORING THE MIGHT OF THE US MILITARY
For those in the US military, now slowly starved of the resources it needed to carry out its missions in an increasingly dangerous world, the hardships were even greater. There was not enough money to replace the 20- to 30-year-old ships and planes which had been built during the Reagan era and were wearing out at a rapid rate. There wasn’t enough money to buy the spare parts to keep the planes flying. There wasn’t enough money for adequate troop training. Soon, there weren’t enough soldiers, ships and planes available for the military to carry out the missions it was being assigned around the world.
Military families had to rely on food stamps to feed their children. Suicides and broken families became a growing problem for US military personnel who had seen too much combat, and who had been away from home for too long. Eventually, the deteriorating equipment and lack of adequate training led to a series of collisions at sea and plane crashes. Almost four times as many US soldiers were dying in training accidents than in active combat zones around the world. Decades of Pentagon underfunding, followed by the additional restrictions of the sequester, had led to a severe degrading of America’s military readiness.
Trump and Republican leaders felt that desperate measures had to be taken. In political terms, that meant giving the Democrats some of the wasteful domestic spending they had grown accustomed to under Obama in return for a two-year $717 billion annual budget deal for the Pentagon which would restore basic military readiness levels, start a more rapid replacement cycle for worn out equipment and give military families a long-overdue 2.6% pay raise. Fiscal conservatives howled at the dramatic increase in the deficit, and Trump promised never to agree such a deal again, but it was done so that the capabilities of the American military could be restored.
Another recent small victory for Trump during his first 500 days was the bipartisan passage of a bill to “fix” some of the problems which have arisen with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which sought to reform the nation’s banking system to prevent a recurrence of the financial meltdown of 2008 and to fix the underlying problem of unsafe speculation by banks which were considered to be “too big to fail,” forcing the federal government to bail them out using taxpayer money. The bill also tightened bank consumer lending standards and created a new federal regulatory agency to protect consumers from the predatory lending practices which led to the collapse of the housing bubble and the wholesale defaults of the sub-prime mortgages upon which it had been built.
Many banking experts wanted many of the Dodd-Frank innovations eliminated entirely, but to get bipartisan support, the fixes in the new bill were mostly confined to measures which would provide relief to mid-sized and smaller regional banks which had suffered the most from the original Dodd-Frank financial requirements.
THE DACA DEAL THAT FAILED
Another major promise which Trump made to his voters and which he has yet to fulfill was to reform US immigration laws and build a barrier which would protect the southern border with Mexico from illegal aliens and criminal smugglers. At one point earlier this year, Trump seemed on the verge of reaching a major deal with congressional Democrats in which Trump would support a major expansion of Obama’s DACA program, which gave temporary protection from deportation to about 700,000 illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. Trump offered to give up to two million children who are theoretically eligible for DACA protection permanent legal residency with a path to US citizenship in return for funding for the wall on the Mexican border and the elimination of provisions in the current immigration law for “chain migration” (the admission of family members) and the awarding of visas to random foreigners via the “diversity lottery.”
Unfortunately, the Democrats changed their minds and the proposal failed among bitter recriminations on both sides. The urgency for dealing with the expiring DACA program was then eliminated when liberal immigration activists got injunctions from liberal judges forcing the DACA program to be extended pending a definitive higher court ruling. Such a ruling could come at any time, precipitating an immediate deportation crisis if the ruling should go against the DACA recipients.
Finally, Trump has yet to unveil the $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan he spoke about during the presidential campaign. Trump is unlikely to provide more details of the infrastructure plan until well after the midterm election, and not until his tax cut and deregulatory proposals have generated enough additional economic activity to make such a massive new government investment program feasible.
SHIFTING POLLS AND PROSPECTS
Despite some setbacks and still unfulfilled promises, President Trump has hit his stride as president, and the American public has started to notice. Only four months ago, public opinion polls were predicting a “blue wave” in the November election, signaling a large-scale voter rejection of his policies.
But polls have shifted. Trump’s average job approval rating has climbed by about seven points to a respectable 44%, and the double-digit advantage which Democrat candidates had recently held over Republicans in a generic vote has virtually disappeared. The polls are now predicting that the midterms are likely to lead to a small Republican net gain in the Senate, expanding its current 51–49 majority, while expected Republican losses in the House may be small enough for them to retain very narrow majority control there as well, which would be a major setback for Democrat expectations.
Another area in which Trump has won a decisive victory over his political opponents is in the struggle to capture the hearts and minds of Republican and conservative voters across the country. That was not always a given. Trump soundly defeated all 17 of his mainstream opponents for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination during the primary campaign. But there was a sizable group of “establishment” Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, as well as intellectual conservatives such as Bill Kristol, who were so repelled by his insulting attacks on his opponents and populist appeals for support on issues such as immigration, that they felt they could never support him.
WINNING OVER MOST REPUBLICANS
But since then, Trump has worked hard to unify the Republican party behind him and reached out, sometime generously, to his most outspoken former opponents. Around the country, grassroots Republicans have accepted him as their leader. He has used his tweets and other formidable communications skills, as well as conservative support for his policies from media outlets such as Fox News, as well as charismatic commentators Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh who have helped him to respond to his critics by successfully challenging their credibility. Mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC have made the task easier for Trump because the anti-Trump bias in their reporting and commentary is so blatant.
In their determination to paint Trump as the ultimate villain in American politics, their distortion of the facts leading them to get caught violating almost every other journalistic principle, has gone a long way to undermine the credibility of all mainstream media journalism. The divisions are so deep that they have created two politically incompatible views of reality. In the pro-Trump, conservative view, the president is leading a grassroots revolution to free the American people from the corruption of the Washington political swamp and lead them to a new era of prosperity and American greatness. In the anti-Trump liberal view, the White House has been captured by an evil genius, Donald Trump, undoubtedly with the help of other corrupt billionaires, as well as the Russians, of course, to plunder the middle class and defenseless American workers.
A BLACK AND WHITE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
It has become a black and white political world, with good versus evil, with no shades of gray in between. Never-Trump Republicans and moderate Democrats have been forced to the sidelines, their voices calling for reason and compromise all but drowned out by the demands for absolute victory by the pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces and their media advocates.
A recent Gallup poll showed that President Trump commands the second highest “own party” approval rating from Republicans of any president at the 500-day mark since World War II, behind only President George W. Bush, after 9/11. At the Mackinac Policy Conference in Michigan last week, the former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner lamented that today, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party. The Republican party is taking a nap somewhere.”
Similarly, on the Democrat side, the lion’s share of recent primaries for congressional seats across the country have been won by liberal activists whose avowed goal is to work towards Trump’s removal from office through impeachment. This makes many Democrat pollsters and strategists nervous in the absence of a coherent Democrat campaign message which goes beyond getting rid of the president. Democrat strategists are aware that Trump’s job approval ratings are rising due to the recent successes of his economic and foreign policies. They also know that the credibility of accusations that Trump committed an impeachable offense fades a little more each day that no credible evidence is uncovered of election collusion with the Russians or a clear attempt on Trump’s part to obstruct justice.
As long as Trump’s policies keep working to boost the economy, and he keeps his campaign promises to the American people, with Democrats having no new policy ideas of their own to suggest, prospects for the last 900 or so days of his first term as president and his popularity are likely to keep brightening.