What makes an American politician trustworthy

United States

Markus B. Siewert

Markus B. Siewert has been a research assistant at the Chair of Policy Analysis at the University of Politics since April 2019. Before that, he worked at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University of Berlin and at the Albert Ludwigs University as a research assistant in the pre- and post-doctoral phase.

Florian Böller

Florian Böller is Junior Professor for Transatlantic Relations at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. He researches and publishes with a view to the USA, in particular on questions of foreign and security policy and relations between the USA and Russia.

How do you evaluate a successful presidency? The answer depends not only on the political point of view, but also has to take structural factors and long-term consequences into account. In any case, the price for (un) redeemed election promises could be high.

US President Donald Trump looks at himself in the mirror. Donald Trump's positive self-perception is particularly surprising because the published opinion does lead to different assessments. (& copy picture-alliance, abaca | Pool / ABACA)

Reading the speeches and statements of Donald J. Trump, one easily gets the impression that his term in office has been the most successful presidency of all time. [1] In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2018, the 45th President of the USA announced that "my government has achieved more in the past two years than almost any other government in the history of our country" (The White House 2018 ; own translation).

This positive self-perception is surprising mainly because the published opinion on this side and the other side of the Atlantic leads to different assessments. It goes without saying that it is in the eye of the beholder what constitutes a successful or failed policy. Political measures and problem solutions are always multidimensional and ambiguous: the extent to which the goals set at the beginning of a term of office are achieved plays a major role in the accounting of a government. But other aspects are also important, such as the question of the political effects and (long-term) consequences of a decision or how a certain measure was implemented.

Achievements and defeats in domestic politics

With a view to the outstanding successes of the Trump administration in domestic politics, the enforcement of a tax reform, the passing of innovations in the judicial system and the appointment of two Conservative judges for the US Supreme Court (Supreme Court) to call. So Trump succeeded in tandem with the Republican majority in Congress with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to implement a key promise from the election campaign in 2017, namely a comprehensive reform of the US tax system. With an estimated volume of up to two trillion US dollars, the law is the largest package of tax breaks ever passed and is rightly mentioned in the same breath as the tax reforms under Ronald Reagan (1986) and George W. Bush (2001) . However, the economic benefits are highly controversial: Although the reform is expected to boost the US economy, the national debt mountain is increasing at the same time. In addition, it is above all companies and economically better-off strata that benefit, while middle and lower income groups benefit comparatively less from the reduction of the tax burden or the restructuring of the tax brackets.

A mixed assessment of the track record is also evident when it comes to other key government campaign promises, such as health and immigration policies. From the first day of his presidency onwards, Trump put the withdrawal of the healthcare reform passed under Obama high on the political agenda. A related bill failed in the Senate, so the government changed its strategy and large parts of Obamacare suspended by administrative ordinances.

In many ways, the health reform is an example of Trump's fixation on the withdrawal of bills that were passed under his predecessor Barack Obama. In his first year in office, Trump put an end to a large number of measures taken by the Obama administration, especially in areas such as education, the environment and employee protection. The main reason that this was so easy was due to the fact that, in view of the strict blockade of the Republicans in Congress, the Obama administration was only able to enforce many provisions by means of executive orders, which could then be withdrawn much more easily.

Similar to his predecessors in office, Trump is also characterized by the fact that he often goes the way of governing by means of executive orders without involving the legislature. [2] In addition to the dismantling of the healthcare system, the White House aimed in particular at deregulation measures in the financial sector, for which new rules had been introduced in the wake of the economic and financial crisis of 2008/09. The same can be seen in the area of ​​environmental and climate protection, where the Trump administration has succeeded in shifting priorities away from nature conservation and towards economic exploitation. [3] The advantage of executive action by decree is obvious for Trump, as it can be implemented administratively without lengthy negotiation processes with Congress. At the same time, however, such a policy is also a sign of weakness, as these measures obviously do not have a majority in society behind them in order to have any prospect of success as a legislative proposal in Congress.

When it comes to immigration, too, the results are mixed: Basically, the Trump administration has succeeded in impressing its supporters with a number of measures. For example, with the entry ban for relatives from seven predominantly Muslim countries of origin, the general tightening of asylum regulations or the zero tolerance policy towards immigrants from Central and South America classified as illegal. On the other hand, Trump had to take serious setbacks with his prestige project, the construction of the wall on the border with Mexico, because Congress refused to provide the necessary financial resources. In response to this, the government used its executive room for maneuver by declaring a national emergency - which is highly questionable under constitutional law - and was thus able to reallocate existing funds in the budget. Trump's decision to separate thousands of children and adolescents who fled illegally with their parents over the southern border to the USA from their families and transfer them to the custody of the US health authorities caused a stir in the USA and around the world. However, this has apparently hardly harmed the basic public approval of Trump's immigration policy, as it remained constant at around 40% over the entire term of office.

Achievements and defeats in foreign and security policy

In foreign and security policy, too, Donald Trump had the guiding principle of "America First"(White House 2017) announced a radical break with the traditions of Washington's political operations. Specifically, this foreign policy doctrine aimed at greater national freedom of action, unilateral enforcement of US interests in all political fields, the detachment from international obligations within the framework of treaties and organizations as well as the Regaining military strength.

If you measure Trump by your own announcements, you can definitely see some successes for the administration. In trade policy, Trump initially tightened the tone by accusing other states of unfair practices and criticizing trade agreements (previously mostly non-partisan). With unilaterally introduced punitive tariffs against Mexico, China, but also the European Union, Trump increased the pressure on these states to obtain concessions and new agreements. He was able to record a success with trading partners in North America and the NAFTA free trade agreement, which he sharply criticized, through the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) replace. The Trump administration also succeeded in gaining the necessary support from the Democrats in the House of Representatives, without which the treaty could not have been implemented. For the administration, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement (TPP) negotiated by Obama is also considered a success, as it is another campaign promise.

In the security policy area, too, the President continued his America First-Doctrine quite consistently by terminating several central agreements and arrangements. In the field of disarmament and non-proliferation policy, this included above all the Intermediate-Range Nuclear ForcesContract with Russia and the so-called "Iran Deal" to prevent an Iranian atomic bomb. In addition, the administration announced in May 2020 from the Open Skies- Withdraw the agreement that regulates reconnaissance flights to create transparency in arms control. Trump's arguments are similar in all cases: the contracting parties would cheat the USA, and the USA should not allow the terms of the contract to restrict its freedom of action. From a political perspective, these measures and strategies can definitely be rated as a success. As in the area of ​​domestic policy, Trump enjoys high approval ratings for his foreign policy among Republican voters (see Pew 2018). In addition, Trump succeeds, at least rhetorically, in convincingly linking the measures with his own agenda and in portraying himself as the protector of the country's interests. A typical example is Trump's justification for the announcement of the exit from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017: "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris" (White House 2017b).

Nonetheless, it is quite remarkable that Trump's foreign and security policy has hardly encountered any political headwinds in the United States. After all, this is where the break with traditional values ​​of American politics is most evident. Since the end of the Second World War, no US president has demarcated himself so clearly from a liberal leadership role that was aimed at building and maintaining international institutions and values ​​such as human rights, free trade and democracy. This internationalist policy was supported for a long time by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and was significantly less polarized than domestic politics.

Even so, proponents of traditional foreign and security policy suffered only isolated defeats for the Trump administration. Resistance to the administration was most evident on the issue of sanctions against Russia. Trump had publicly brought the idea of ​​a deal with Vladimir Putin into play and thus set the alarm bells on security policy Hardliners ring in Congress. In response to Trump's move, Congress passed a law that not only tightened sanctions against Russia, but also restricted the president's ability to lift them against the will of the legislature. Trump's sometimes shrill rhetoric also met resistance in alliance politics. Especially the threat of Trump to leave NATO, which the president formulated according to media reports during the NATO summit in Brussels in 2018 (Herszenhorn and Bayer 2018), provoked a clear countermovement in Congress. With various resolutions, the legislature made it clear that the US would stand by NATO and would not stand idly by leaving it. [4]

The fact that the legislature only managed to contain Trump in its foreign and security policy in individual cases can be attributed not least to the president's significantly greater scope for action. It is true that the Congress can also have a say in foreign policy through its budgetary rights and a number of policy-specific means (such as war powers or the obligation to ratify international treaties by the Senate). But the president can, within the framework of diplomacy and supported by a bureaucratic apparatus, launch foreign and security policy initiatives and set the direction, so that the legislature is often forced into a reactive role.

Precisely because Trump's foreign policy measures are aimed at withdrawing from existing obligations - for example through contract termination or the stop on payments to the World Health Organization announced in the Corana crisis - Congress has hardly any means to correct course. On the other hand, President Obama's more multilateral policy, which also included the conclusion of new agreements, was effectively torpedoed by the Republican opposition in Congress. For example, due to a lack of support for climate ("Paris") and non-proliferation policies (Iran deal), Obama had to rely on executive agreements that Trump could now reverse with the stroke of a pen. Only where the Congress can exert direct influence through budgetary law, Trump's nationalist-oriented foreign policy is at least partially thwarted - one example of this is development aid. [5]

Donald J. Trump: Most Successful President of All Time?

If you look back on the past four years in domestic policy as well as foreign and security policy, the Trump administration was able to follow the doctrine of the America First deliver on a series of campaign pledges.

When it comes to domestic political issues, the spiral of party political polarization in the USA continues to turn under Trump. The conflict between the two camps intensified not only in tone, but also in the use of resources. Issues and problems that have been shaping the political agenda for years have basically remained unsolved. Examples of this can be found in immigration, social, health, household, educational and environmental policy. It is precisely here that the disadvantages of governing by decree become apparent. Although this allows political action, the measures can be turned back just as quickly, which in some cases results in drastic policy changes. Internally, the long-term effects of an apparent ungovernability in the presidential system of the USA are becoming increasingly evident: not even a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic could bring about a (at least temporary) policy of national unity.

The situation is similar with regard to foreign and security policy, where some of the Trump administration's successes are at odds with the long-term political ramifications that this policy of reducing international commitments and diplomacy focused on short-term agreements brings with it. Confidence in the reliability of the USA as a regulatory power appears to be massively damaged and a long-term and formative foreign policy is hardly recognizable. Central challenges - such as a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pacification of Syria or the non-proliferation policy towards North Korea - remain unsolved despite Trump's announcements.

In retrospect, the first four years of Donald J. Trump's presidency were more successful than many observers on both sides of the Atlantic want to admit. At the same time, however, it is also very clear that the adjective 'historical' certainly does not apply to Trump's government balance sheet, even if the president will certainly see it differently.

Donald Trump's government balance sheet in numbers

illustration 1 show the presidential success scores to evaluate the government balance sheet. These indicate how often the position of the US president has prevailed in votes in Congress. The Trump administration's rate was an outstanding 98.7% in 2017 and 93.4% in the second year of office in 2018. Trump exceeded Barack Obama's all-time high from 2009 (96.7%) in the first year. This track record can mainly be traced back to the general political parameters that shape the interaction between Congress and President in the legislative process: the partisan control of branches of government, the polarization of the parties and the dynamism of public opinion. [1]



Figure 2 provides an overview of important laws passed according to an updated study by political scientist David Mayhew entitled "Divided We Govern" [2]: Under divided government (to a certain extent "divided government") one understands the divergence of the party affiliation of the US president and the party affiliation of the majority of the US Congress. If, on the other hand, the majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives as well as the President belong to the same party, then unified government (ie "united government") spoken. The Trump administration can show presentable results with six important laws in each of the first two years in office.However, if you compare the balance sheet with the previous governments, it becomes clear that Trump only achieved the usual target margins or is even slightly below them, since more significant laws were passed by Congress under both George Bush and, above all, Barack Obama.



Footnotes
  1. See in detail Siewert, Markus B .: The President: Possibilities and limits of presidential leadership. In: Lammert, Christian, Markus B. Siewert, Boris Vormann (eds.): Handbook Politics USA. 2nd updated and expanded edition. Wiesbaden 2020.
  2. Mayhew, David R .: Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking and Investigations, 1946-2002, New Haven 2005.

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