Evaluating our U.S. presidents is done intermittently. Such benchmarks are the bedrock upon which we gauge the past. The first 100 days of an administration—a standard used since Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration—arrived on April 29th. President Trump said it was a “ridiculous standard” upon which to be judged. Perhaps now, a full six months after his inaugural (this week) is a more sensible yardstick. Let’s give it a once over.
The Economy: We’ve been on a modest economic roll ever since the election. Markets have hit over 23 record highs. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) reached another recent record of 21,532, a full 17 percent up since the election and nine percent up since the inaugural. NASDAQ, fueled by technology stocks (the best-performing sector of the year) hit a closing record on Tuesday. Both NASDAQ and the S&P 500 breached opening record highs on Wednesday. The unemployment rate which stood at 4.9 percent in June of 2016 is down to 4.4 percent with 222,000 jobs created in June, averaging out at 180,000 new jobs each month this year. Oil prices have remained fairly stable resulting in affordable energy costs for families and businesses. A gallon of regular gasoline averages $2.25 nationwide, up only a nickel from this time last year.
Other economic indicators are mixed. Retail sales have risen 3.5 percent year-over-year (YOY), although they may not reach 2016’s 3.8 percent. Similarly, housing starts are up 3.6 percent in June, although new and existing home sales are down eight percent YOY.
Some indicators are just plan poor. Of significant concern, as Mr. Trump raised during the campaign and now as President, is the trade deficit which for the past two years has topped $500 billion. This year, given the current pace, we will exceed that level—perhaps by as much as seven percent.
Moreover, economic growth has slowed. The gross domestic product (GDP) which posted 1.6 percent growth in 2016 was only 1.4 percent during the first quarter of this year, and even less in May (1.2 percent). The second quarter numbers will be out at the end of this month and seem poised for good gains. It will be a tough test, however, to reach candidate Trump’s suggested GDP growth of six, five or even four percent. Most people would be pleasantly surprised at three percent, which Gary Cohn the President’s Director of the National Economic Council has suggested is still attainable in 2017.
Policy: While on the whole the economy has been pretty positive, some of the optimism in markets is undoubtedly due to speculation that the policies proposed by Mr. Trump will come to fruition. Such policies, including but not limited to tax reform and infrastructure improvements, would go a long way toward positively propelling the economy. Alas, the Trump Administration has not been leading on these issues. A mere single one-pager on tax reform is all that’s been seen by the public. On the Trump trillion dollar infrastructure policy proposal, there’s a scant six-pager.
On other matters, like repealing and/or replacing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the President has left that to the House and Senate—the House having passed a bill and the Senate still struggling to do so. On the President’s “big, beautiful border wall” between the United States and Mexico that would be paid for by Mexico, little if any progress has been made. Of significance is the Senate confirmation of the President’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch.
Nevertheless, working to get his policy proposals in place has been perhaps the President’s weakest area. That’s notable given both his trumpeted dealmaking ability and that his party, the Republicans, have majorities in both houses of Congress. Furthermore, if things aren’t going great guns now, it’s not particularly presumable it will get easier in the near-term. That’s because at least two key issues will complicate matters further—the end of the fiscal year budget battle and the need to increase the debt ceiling (both to be voted upon near the end of September).
Investigations: High hurdles on Capitol Hill are also complicated by the various investigations into Russian election tampering and potential collusion with Trump associates (including members of his family). While the President and spokespeople for the Administration have many times said there’s no “there” there, facts continue to dribble out, which clearly contradict such assertions. At this point, it’s an open question as to what, if anything, will result from the myriad investigations underway by Congress and the Department of Justice’s Special Counsel.
Unfortunately, the President hasn’t had any honeymoon normally enjoyed by a new president. Even many Republicans have been quite critical. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently said an idea of the President’s was one of the “dumbest” ever. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only a 36 percent job approval rating (down from 42 percent in April), which is a 70-year low for presidents at this point in their new administration.
Geopolitics: The President started off strong with world leaders, hosting several at the White House and others at his private club in Florida. He met with many more on his foreign forays at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Group of Seven (G7) meetings in May, and at the Group of Twenty (G20) meeting earlier this month. He even travelled to Paris last week for Bastille Day at the invitation of new French President Emmanuel Macron and the two appear to have gotten on very well. That said, some other relationships have obviously been a little rough and the President has brought some of that upon himself. Specifically, he became the only member of the G20 to oppose the Paris Climate Agreement to address global warming. He also criticized NATO members for not contributing enough to the organization and then scrapped a key portion of his speech touting the fundamental principle of NATO’s mutual defense. He later (last month in Poland) finally embraced it—what is known as Article 5. All of this continues as North Korea pursues belligerent behavior both in terms of their warmongering rhetoric aimed at the U.S. and the testing and proliferation of nuclear weapons. There appears to be no plan to address this menacing threat.
In sum, while there are glimmers and gleams of positives for the Trump presidency—like the economy—and potential for many more—it’s nonetheless been a historically bad beginning. There’s been no real leadership on policy. He’s been reactive, at best, in dealing with Congress (save his formidable February 28th speech to a joint session). Mixed messages continue to manifest on many matters from those within the Administration—some even from the President himself. For the sake of our people and our country, let’s hope the President gains good ground on meaningful matters and that things improve as we go forward. commentators will certainly do another look-see at the end of the year.
05 Sep 2017 - OpEds