At a rally in Pennsylvania earlier this evening, President Trump boasted, “We have done more than any first-term administration in the history of our country.”
After just 14 months in office, Trump believes he has already compiled a better first-term record than all 43 of predecessors.
To support this claim, Trump listed the following achievements: “regulation, tax cuts, federal judges, a great, great Supreme Court justice… the biggest tax cut in the history of our country… And you know what helped? When AT&T and the big companies came, they started paying thousands and thousands of dollars of bonuses to, you know, millions of people. I think it’s up to 5 billion people now… But we also got rid of the individual mandate from Obamacare, which basically guts out Obamacare, that’ll be next….”
Some of that is true.
Trump has indeed cut federal regulations with a vigor unmatched since Warren Harding and Ronald Reagan. (The Harding and Reagan deregulations helped produce robust booms in the ’20s and ’80s, followed respectively by the worst and second-worst economic crises of the 20th century — the Great Depression and the Reagan/Bush recession of 1988–91.)
Thanks to longstanding Senate obstruction of Obama appointees, Trump has also had the opportunity to appoint a large number of conservatives to the federal bench.
It is nice to imagine 5 billion people benefiting from Trump’s tax cuts, as that is two-thirds of the world’s total population.
However, there are only 323 million Americans, of whom perhaps 3 million received bonuses arguably attributable to Trump’s tax cuts.
Since World War II, there have been six tax cuts larger than the one Trump signed last year:
- Harry Truman, 1945
- Truman, 1948
- Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
- Ronald Reagan, 1981
- Barack Obama, 2010
- Obama, 2013
Despite those tax cuts, all four Democrats — Truman, Obama, and LBJ — successfully managed spending, steadily reducing federal deficits. Only Reagan — and Trump, and Bush the Younger — detonated deficit-exploding tax cuts without sensible spending restraints.
Repeal of the individual mandate will indeed hobble Obamacare. (During Trump’s first year in office, 3.2 million Americans lost health insurance. Uninsured numbers should shoot up further as Trump continues to “gut out” the Affordable Care Act.)
Trump vs. the Greatest Presidents of All Time
Do the current president’s achievements in his first 14 months trump the first terms of all 43 past presidents?
Trump’s record is pitiful compared to our greatest presidents. To cite just a few examples:
- During George Washington’s first term, he set up the executive branch from scratch, put a bankrupt and deeply indebted federal government on a path to fiscal sanity, and appointed seven Supreme Court justices. At his urging, Congress passed and the states ratified the Bill of Rights.
- In Abraham Lincoln’s first term, he led the country most of the way to victory in the Civil War. Meanwhile, he signed the Homestead Act, created land grant colleges, and secured financing for a transcontinental railroad.
- In his first term, Woodrow Wilson slashed the tariff, slapped an income tax on the rich, protected consumers by breaking up monopolies, regulating big business, and creating the Federal Reserve to regulate banks.
- Franklin Roosevelt achieved far more in his first 100 days than Trump has to date. FDR launched the New Deal, provided relief and jobs for unemployed Americans, reformed banks, industry, and agriculture, and established a federal minimum wage. Later in his first term, FDR negotiated several free trade agreements and created Social Security.
- In his first year in office, Truman ended the genocidal regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and then launched a winning strategy to defeat even more murderous Communist regimes over the next 45 years of the Cold War.
- In his first four years, Lyndon B. Johnson…
a. Created Medicare
b. Outlawed racist and sexist discrimination with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964
c. Enfranchised black southerners with the Voting Rights Act of 1965
d. Ended racist immigration restrictions
e. Enacted the first significant anti-pollution regulations
f. Began Head Start and created Title I to improve preK-12 education for low-income kids
g. Invented federal college financial aid
h. Raised the minimum wage to historic highs
i. Fought a successful War on Poverty — and a less successful Vietnam War
Trump’s first-term achievements fall light years short of those truly great presidents.
Trump vs. Not-Quite-Great Presidents
His policy record is shamefully slim, even when compared to merely good presidents. Consider the examples of two recent presidents who — like Trump — entered the White House with their own parties controlling both houses of Congress:
- In his first year, Bill Clinton signed an economic stimulus package to jolt the country out of recession, cut taxes, approved the Family and Medical Leave Act, secured NAFTA ratification, and signed the Brady Bill, a modest gun control measure.
- In his first 14 months, Barack Obama passed economic stimulus (ARRA), contained the financial crisis, adopted new environmental regulations, and signed the Affordable Care Act, which ultimately increased the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance from 80% to 90%.
During George W. Bush’s first two years in office, Democrats held the Senate, but Dubya still outperformed Trump. In his first 14 months, Bush the Younger matched Trump’s for unwise deregulation and deficit-detonating tax cuts, and piled on with the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, and an invasion of Afghanistan.
Trump vs. the Worst of the Worst
The good news for Trump is that there have been presidents who had worse first terms:
- In 1841, President William Henry Harrison died after just a month in office. (Other first-term deaths included Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, Warren Harding, and John Kennedy.)
- The product of the tainted election of 1824, John Quincy Adams achieved nearly nothing due to unrelenting opposition from supporters of his disappointed rival, Andrew Jackson.
- Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate traitors, set a record for vetoes overridden, and got impeached (though not removed).
- James Buchanan wrecked the economy, revoked human rights from an entire race, violated the constitutional separation of powers, and plunged the country into a ruinous civil war that killed nearly 2% of the US population.
In policy terms, Trump’s first 14 months do not rank among the worst ever.
However, moral leadership also matters, and here Trump has managed some superlatives. No president has so rapidly and thoroughly alienated the people of this country and the world. No past president has ever lied so promiscuously, nor consistently disgraced his office and country by lobbing crude insults at foreign leaders, political opponents, and minor celebrities. In these realms, Trump truly separates himself from all past presidents.