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Trump Accomplished A Lot In 2017, But At What Cost?

President Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 21, a day after signing the Republican tax bill.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 21, a day after signing the Republican tax bill.

Updated on Dec. 28 at 10:37 a.m. ET

When President Trump was elected, conservatives weren't sure what they were going to get.

Some were worried that he wouldn't reliably adhere to their agenda. Others were turned off by his character, the tweets, the accusations of sexual misconduct. But there were those who pulled the lever for Trump anyway, figuring he would deliver more conservative policies than a President Hillary Clinton.

And deliver he has.

"Conservatives of various types have thus seen progress on their agenda in 2017," Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review recently wrote.

He continued: "Economic conservatives got tax cuts and some deregulation. Legal conservatives got judicial appointments and an executive branch more mindful of the limits of its policymaking authority. Social conservatives also benefited from the judicial appointments and welcomed Trump's policy of blocking international family-planning funding from going to organizations that promote or perform abortions."

In the end, Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress achieved "roughly what you would expect from a Republican president with a narrowly Republican Senate and a Republican House," said Ponnuru.

And, in fact, most of those achievements came through executive action or with the bare minimum of votes in the Senate, using arcane procedures and new interpretations of old rules to avoid filibusters. The confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the repeal of 16 regulations through the Congressional Review Act and the tax bill that was passed through reconciliation all required just 51 votes.

For someone who ran as an unconventional candidate, Trump has turned out to be a surprisingly reliable conservative as president, conventional even — aside from his social media habits, rhetoric and occasional feuding with his fellow Republicans.

"There are some areas where he disagrees with the conventional conservative view but he has either been unwilling or unable to put them into practice," Ponnuru said in an interview with NPR.

For much of 2017, it looked as though Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress were at risk of having no major legislative accomplishments to show for the year. That changed on Dec. 20 when Trump signed a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill, which also knocked out the Affordable Care Act's penalty for not having insurance and opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

A couple of days after signing the bill, Trump was still celebrating how the tax plan "brought it all together as to what an incredible year we had."

"Incredible" may not be the adjective of choice for Democrats, but they do acknowledge Trump's achievements during year one on the job.

"It depends on how you define success, but he has definitely accomplished some key goals of the conservative movement," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a group that has been fighting Trump's agenda at every turn. "I expected Donald Trump to pursue a far right agenda and he is meeting those expectations and he is succeeding."

But, as Tanden sees it, Trump's success is coming at a cost. The left is highly energized, and his approval rating is south of 40 percent.

"He will reshape American life in fundamental ways, particularly in the regulatory code and what he's done on taxes, but I think where he has failed is to bring the American people with him," said Tanden.

It seems bringing the American people along may not have really been the goal. For Trump, it's all about the base. And there's a risk that laser focus will have consequences. It probably already has, if you look at Democratic turnout in recent off-year elections.

"The Trump administration has now delivered a tax cut that makes conservatives happy," Ponnuru said. "It hasn't really done a lot to make swing voters happy. But it also hasn't really tried."

Trump says that effort is coming in 2018, with what he hopes will be bipartisan infrastructure legislation. It will be easy, he recently argued. Democrats, whose votes would be needed, aren't so sure.

As for 2017, Ponnuru says another Republican president probably would have done more to shape the tax bill than Trump did, and may have come in with a fleshed-out proposal for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. The inability to repeal former President Barack Obama's signature accomplishment was by far the greatest failure of Trump's first year. Despite Trump's claims to the contrary, Obamacare is still the law of the land.

But would that have been different with a different Republican president? Ponnuru isn't so sure.

By Trump's own account, he has been off-the-charts incredibly successful.

At a recent White House press briefing, it took press secretary Sarah Sanders a full 2 1/2 minutes to list all of what Trump had overseen since his inauguration. Her list included:

  • The unemployment rate is down to 4.1 percent.
  • The stock market is at record highs.
  • Congress "rolled back 22 regulations for every one new regulation."
  • Trump pulled out of or started to renegotiate trade deals.
  • He announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and broadly put a new emphasis on energy production over environmental protection.
  • The administration approved the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
  • The Trump administration amped up immigration enforcement, and the travel ban executive order is now at least partially in effect after months of legal challenges; prototype wall segments have been constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • "ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory and its most important strongholds in Iraq and Syria."
  • Through executive action, Trump has eroded pieces of Obamacare.
  • "We've reshaped the American judiciary for generations. Justice Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and 22 judges have been confirmed, including a record-setting 12 circuit judges."
  • It was, Sanders said, "by any measure, a historic year."

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    Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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