With President Biden now in the White House, let’s objectively assess President Trump’s four years in office.
An objective evaluation is neither construed from the Left’s Resist Movement (there are plenty of those views out there to read) nor part of the MAGA-hat-wearing, Trump-Rambo-flag-waving crowd (with its own small but vocal minority that breaks laws and assaults).
No, objectively here means from the lens of middle-class Americans in fly-over country. Places like my corner of the world, western Pennsylvania. You know, the people and regions the government and its elected leaders are supposed to work for.
So, how would one grade Trump looking back on the past four years?
Although assessing the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth in the complex modern era can be a daunting task, Trump’s legacy comes down to performance in three crucial categories: domestic/foreign policy, fiscal/monetary policy, and the intangibles/leadership. Trump’s performance across these three categories has been quite the mixed bag.
Domestic/Foreign Policy Grade: A
Trump clearly excelled in the category of domestic/foreign policy.
Countless Americans benefitted from deregulation across numerous industries and activities; working families along with free enterprise doers had the shackles of the administrative state loosened for the first time in a decade.
Those that carry society’s water as taxpayers were able to retain more of their hard-earned value with tax reform. Parents and their children benefitted from policies that favored school choice. Criminal justice reform became a reality. A record number of federal judges, including over 50 appellate judges, were confirmed to the bench. America maintained its global energy leadership, keeping domestic energy costs affordable while sharing cleaner-burning natural gas with others abroad.
Historic accords were inked between Israel and wide swaths of Arab and Muslim nations. An oppressive, aggressive, and menacing China was finally taken head on. NAFTA was replaced with the superior USMCA. The nice sounding but flawed concept of free trade was replaced with the practical reality of fair trade between the US and trade partners.
Trump wasn’t perfect on the policy front. Not getting major immigration reform across the finish line was a missed opportunity. Operation Warp Speed successfully rolled out vaccines in less than a year, but the pandemic still claimed a heavy toll in lost lives.
Love him or despise him, but Trump posted a policy record that bested his predecessors all the way back to Reagan. The scoreboard of pre-pandemic GDP growth, unemployment, and market valuations proves it. All of it achieved while reducing our involvements in endless wars in faraway lands.
Fiscal/Monetary Policy Grade: F
This category is the biggest failure of Trump and no one across the political spectrum seems interested in talking about it. The US national debt sits at nearly $28 trillion dollars, which is roughly $7 trillion more than our annual GDP. The US government now posts a debt level that is over eight-times its revenue. To put that egregious metric in perspective, consider the S&P index of public corporations posts an average debt-to-revenue ratio of less than 0.5.
Multi-trillion-dollar annual federal deficits are now the accepted and welcomed norm. The Trump era only solidified the comfort with these egregious fiscal levels. Entitlement reform never materialized, and the past four years only stoked the dumpster fire that consists of the federal budget, deficit, and debt. Trump and the Fed had a love-hate relationship over four years. Unfortunately for us, the love part of that relationship was their joint rapture in zero interest rates and a Fed balance sheet that only knows one direction.
Trump, Congress, and the Fed collaborated to have government drive capital allocation to the point where massive bubbles have inflated over equities, debt, real estate, and a host of exotic assets (art, wine, rare coins, etc.).
Saving went from a virtue in our culture (frugality was one of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues) to a punished behavior. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Our nation is about to experience that axiom the hard way as it relates to free money and continual outspend.
Intangibles/Leadership: C (the average of an A and F, as explained below)
Presidents should be judged not just on their policies and the numbers, but also on leadership qualities and intangibles. When it comes to that last component, this country has not seen a president like Trump since FDR. And there is massive positive and massive negative that goes along with that statement.
First, the positive. Trump was a trailblazer and disruptor when it came to communication methods.
Trump single-handedly rendered the mainstream media obsolete with his use of social media, much like FDR did with his fireside chats via radio. Worse yet for the media, he exposed for all to see blatant bias on a range of issues lying underneath the faux veneer of objectivity. And he accomplished all that without the support of (one might argue despite) traditional political party infrastructure. Politicians for generations will be looking to mimic his strategy when it comes to communication.
But there were negatives, some of them massive.
The content of his tweets represents a cumulative failure of leadership. Often it was not what he said, but how he said it. And sometimes it was what he said. But the best way to summarize his body of work on social media and at press conferences over four years is: good grief! Regardless of the fanatical views and violent tendencies of segments of both the Right and Left, as president, equivocating and rationalizing such behavior with a “the other side does it, too” mentality falls woefully short of the obligations of the office. A little discipline or a measure of rising above the fray would’ve done wonders. Alas, neither were apparent.
The other big negative in this category was how Trump acted after the election. High achieving individuals with track records of success don’t suffer loss well. And objective observers understand Trump had a lot working against him, including the Washington establishment and proponents of the status quo in both political parties, the media, a global public health crisis, untested mail-in voting, and so on. But when you’re the leader of the free world, there will be times where the nation comes first. Trump’s lame duck period was one of those times. He did not rise to the occasion, no matter what his role was with the lawlessness that ensued at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump was a force that burned down and rewrote the political playbook on communication and leadership. But he blew it with a poorly executed game plan, lack of judgement, and dangerous penchant for stoking the flames of discontent.
Overall Final Grade: C
We enjoyed better and suffered worse presidents than Trump. What is frustrating with Trump’s performance is that he did so many things right. But stoking fiscal and monetary flames higher and unbecoming behavior that covered up the substance with the form leaves many wondering what might have been.