We surveyed current and past members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section on a variety of topics, asking for their assessments of Trump’s first year in office, both overall and on a few key dimensions of contemporary presidential leadership. The survey was conducted via Qualtrics and was live from Dec. 22, 2017, to Jan. 16, 2018. Of the 320 experts in presidential politics we invited to participate, we received grades back from 155. We then averaged the responses for a systematic assessment of the 45th president’s freshman year.
Other presidents have struggled during their first years in office; some notable examples include Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. But Trump’s evaluations still stand out as particularly critical. Experts graded Trump’s presidency as failing overall, although with more talent for some subjects than others. We asked respondents to select a grade A through F for each “course,” then translated these into a number (A=1, F=5) and averaged the scores.
We haven’t asked for similar grades in previous surveys, so we can’t compare these directly to expert assessments of other presidencies.
Legislative accomplishments: D-
Trump’s major legislative accomplishment came when he signed a major tax reform bill into law shortly before Christmas. With Republicans controlling both chambers and eager to govern after a Democrat held the White House for eight years, expectations were much higher. But Trump often caused consternation among his fellow partisans, attacking them by name and putting them in a position to disavow or even condemn his more controversial comments and conduct. Congress has even sent over occasional policy rebukes, as with the Russian sanctions bill last summer.
Unable to work well with Congress, Trump has used the same unilateral strategy he criticized in his predecessor, Barack Obama. Through executive actions, he significantly rolled back many regulations. However, as Obama has learned, much of what Trump has accomplished unilaterally can also be undone just as unilaterally by a future president.
Foreign policy leadership: F
Even before his infamous “s—hole countries” remark, Trump had given his critics plenty of reasons to condemn how he’s tried to turn “America First” from slogan into policy. Trump has been criticized for his personal actions, such as his Twitter provocations of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and caustic one-on-one conversations with allies. And he’s been criticized for his controversial policy choices, such as the travel ban that’s still being litigated, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords. Trump’s continued inconsistency on Russia, paired with occasional ambivalence about NATO, has added to international uncertainty about U.S. commitments.
Despite the failing grade, Trump had some meaningful foreign policy victories, including ongoing success in the battle with ISIS, April’s cruise missile strike against Syria and a generally successful fall trip to Asia. If the White House were less sensationalist and more disciplined in Year Two, simply implementing the administration’s national security strategy, experts would likely offer better marks.
Trump’s best grade comes in communicating with the public, even though he only earned a D. As a candidate and now president, Trump has demonstrated a knack for grabbing media attention, driving narratives and connecting with a subset of voters who have felt ignored. But the often-divisive rhetoric brought down the grade. Scholars and senators alike have expressed concern about his bombastic and occasionally vulgar and racially-tinged Manichaeism, particularly in his persistent attacks on a free press.
However, his use of social media has been masterful, if unconventional. He has wielded his Twitter account like a blunt political weapon, garnering almost daily attention; his penchant for microblogging insults is prodigious. The downside of this approach has been Trump’s tendency to undermine his policy agenda and derail White House and congressional messaging strategies. Public approval of Trump’s tweeting is lower than that of his presidency in general. That’s quite noteworthy, considering Gallup had Trump’s job-approval rating at a historic 39 percent at the end of 2017, lower than any other modern president has been recorded at equivalent moments.
Embodying institutional norms: F
Experts evaluated Trump most harshly in his failure to embody the institutional norms of the office of the president. Of the 155 of individual grades we received for this dimension of Trump’s first year, all but 18 were Fs and more than half of those 18 were Ds. These results are consistent with growing anxiety that Trump is fundamentally altering the presidency by flouting the informal norms that have helped structure the office for decades. His breaks with precedent include not releasing his tax returns, refusing to divest from his business interests, questioning the legitimacy of judges and government agencies with whom he disagreed and an astonishing willingness to tell untruths.
That’s just the beginning, however. He’s broken with tradition in a variety of ways. Those range from a woefully understaffed executive branch to official positions for family members to an increased reliance on military men in traditionally civilian roles. Trump campaigned on taking a different approach to presidential leadership, to be sure. But many of the ways his presidency has challenged presidential norms have little to do with his promises to drain swamps and revive national greatness.
Overall presidential leadership: F
Trump’s first year in office has been a challenging one, as is true for many new presidents. With the exception of the tax bill and several judicial confirmations, including that of a Supreme Court justice, he has overseen few durable policy gains. Trump’s unpopularity is historic.
These low grades, to be sure, come from typically left-leaning college faculty; 58 percent report being “liberal” or “somewhat liberal” compared to 18 percent “conservative” or “somewhat conservative.” But in past surveys, these experts have ranked President Ronald Reagan over Obama, so their assessments are not purely partisan.
When mainstream reviews of a president’s first year in office fret over the damage done to the institution of the presidency, and U.S. democracy itself, it’s hard to imagine any other grade but failure.
Justin Vaughn is an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.
Brandon Rottinghaus is a professor of political science at the University of Houston. Follow him on Twitter @bjrottinghaus.