With only three weeks until the big presidential election (thank goodness), now’s as good a time as any to grade President Trump’s economic policy during his first term. As you’d expect, my grades below are from a freer market perspective, but the facts supporting them apply regardless of whether you see these changes as “good” or “bad.” Overall, I think that Trump did OK in some areas and horribly in others (which you can probably guess in advance)—essentially reflecting the persistent conflict in the White House (and the entire GOP) between “traditional” conservatives who support more open markets and upstart economic nationalists. (A conflict, it should be noted, that probably undermined the efficacy of each team’s favored policies.)
Before I begin, however, three words of caution: First, it is extremely difficult—particularly when you’re dealing with a diverse, globalized, $20 trillion economy with a powerful and mostly independent central bank—to make a causal connection between specific policies and subsequent changes in economic trends. Second, other U.S. institutions, particularly Congress and the Federal Reserve, of course play a role in shaping U.S. economic policy and performance, but presidents still matter: Politically, they always get more credit or blame than they deserve; substantively, they appoint Fed policymakers, strongly influence party policy (probably too much), and still have to sign or veto legislation. So, yes, Trump didn’t do this all himself, but his administration certainly played a leading role and didn’t hesitate to take credit when things were going well.
Finally, there’s the question of what to do about COVID-19—a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) situation that almost everyone believed required a once-in-a-lifetime (again, hopefully) economic policy response. In general, I plan to be nice and evaluate Trump’s economy before COVID (thus not blaming the administration for the economic collapse or massive increase in spending), though it certainly must be mentioned when we get into the weeds of certain policy moves that have arisen in response to the pandemic (and could very well be with us for many months or years thereafter).
Now onto the grades.