If you were to make a list of the accomplishments of the Trump administration, although it might not be long, it would include many of the things that Donald Trump set out to do when he ran in 2016. The United States pulled back from the global political community to become more isolationist, it revoked a number of the environmental and social policies of the Obama administration, and it installed a number of pro-Trump leaders in governmental bodies.
But with few legislative accomplishments, the Trump administration’s trophies sat on the wobbliest of shelves. Executive orders can be revoked and department heads can be asked to resign or even fired. Only laws and appointments to the federal bench, which are hard if not impossible to overturn, are truly lasting achievements.
On the latter, the Trump administration can rest peacefully. Trump appointed nearly as many judges in his single term as Barack Obama appointed in his two terms, aided by a Republican Senate that was eager to confirm as many conservatives as possible. No president since Ronald Reagan put more than two justices to the Supreme Court, but Trump got three (Obama appointed three but only two were confirmed; incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland, named to the court in 2016, never got a confirmation hearing).
For legislative achievements, though, Trump is limited to just one signature piece: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The cuts were presented by Trump as a way to jumpstart the economy, as he and other Republicans argued they would leave more money for businesses to invest in job creation, a form of trickle-down economics. Trump proclaimed that the tax cuts would double economic growth, which would make them revenue neutral: the doubled growth would mean tax payments to the government would remain the same. None of that panned out, leaving the U.S. with a steep federal deficit.
“The tax cuts were never going to — and have not — come anywhere close to paying for themselves,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told NPR in 2019. Yet they remain the sole major legislative achievement of the administration. That same year, Trump proclaimed that “we promised that these tax cuts would be rocket fuel for the American economy, and we were absolutely right.” But the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the cuts led to no significant change in the size of the economy and that real wages grew at a slower rate than the economy as a whole, suggesting the cuts may have had an adverse impact on worker earnings.
“The tax cuts were never going to — and have not — come anywhere close to paying for themselves.”
— Maya MacGuineas
As for the administration’s goals that were met through executive action, most were overturned by President Biden in his first day in office. The United States will not exit the World Health Organization. We will return to the Paris climate agreement. Controversial pipeline permits have been rescinded.
Trump put a loyalist in charge of Voice of America who wanted to radically change the broadcaster from a relatively neutral source of news to an aggressively pro-American propaganda machine. He’s out.
He wanted to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, successfully getting the Supreme Court to rule that the president had the power to fire its director. That gave Biden the ability to threaten to fire its Trump-appointed director if she did not resign, so she did.
Perhaps most symbolically important, Biden revoked the travel ban that Trump put into place in his earliest days in office. The ban targeted Muslim nations and critics argued it wasn’t rooted in any realistic threat to national security but rather racism. It remained in place during all four years of the Trump administration, but collapsed the moment he left office.
So, too, did his beautiful border wall, his pet project and the thing he dedicated his last days in office to admiring.
Of course, these are all just executive orders, too. They can be overturned if a Trump ally wins the White House in 2024. Like Trump’s first two years, Biden currently enjoys a majority in both houses of Congress, so this is his opportunity to make good on the promises he made to America. But unlike Trump, Biden seems to know this, and he’s lined up legislation for Congress to consider on the coronavirus, student debt relief, and economic recovery.
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