But four years is a long time, and presidents have an enormous amount of power. So even an unpopular chief executive who insists he actually won a losing reelection bid can’t make the wrong call on everything. Now that Trump has been out of office for six months, Outlook asked experts and writers who mostly disagreed with him — often vehemently — to look back on what he got right.
— Mike Madden
Shaking the foreign policy consensus
By Stephen Wertheim
Donald Trump rejected the establishment consensus that the United States has the right and duty to guard international order by force.
The world contains “a lot of killers,” he noted soon after taking office. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Pundits howled in outrage. That they included champions of the war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism suggested that Trump had a point. After decades of massive and routinized killing sold as virtue, Trump at least recognized that U.S. warmaking looked like liberation principally to a small cadre in Washington.
This recognition produced a few genuine policy achievements. Doubting that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were crucial to international stability, Trump made a deal with the Taliban to put America’s war there on a path to termination that his successor is now completing. He rightly embarked on diplomacy with North Korea, despite bungling negotiations. He did not start any new wars — a low but significant bar that George W. Bush, invader of Iraq, and Barack Obama, bomber of Libya, failed to clear.
On balance, however, Trump replaced high-minded internationalism less with responsible statecraft than with bullying militarism. “Our military dominance must be unquestioned,” he maintained from the start. He pointlessly sanctioned Iran and kept troops in Syria “only for the oil.” He had an unhealthy affinity for military pomp and for soldiers who committed war crimes. He dispatched troops to the southern border and to U.S. streets.
Trump stripped American power bare, shedding its cloak of piety. His successors must decide whether to dress it back up or scale it down. After Trump, the latter seems both more possible and more urgent.
Stephen Wertheim is senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy .
Operation Warp Speed
By Saad B. Omer
Developing a vaccine during a pandemic is like running a marathon at a sprint. Operation Warp Speed was established to do just that by coordinating the development, manufacturing and deployment of vaccines and therapeutics against the coronavirus. With the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of three vaccines (and other candidates in advanced stages of evaluation), it is clear that this project was remarkably successful at the development part. Indeed, it stands out as a bright spot in an otherwise suboptimal pandemic response in the United States for most of 2020.
Operation Warp Speed, which was led throughout by professionals with substantial experience, leveraged the resources of various federal agencies. Early engagement of a diverse group of vaccine developers — ranging from long-established companies such as Johnson & Johnson to emerging biotechnology firms such as Moderna — ensured that the focus was on promising technologies and not the business experience of the manufacturer. By investing in multiple types of vaccines, the government spread the risk across several technological platforms. This approach is likely to result in still more vaccines, many with desirable characteristics such as single-dose regimens and the ability to be stored in the refrigerator for long periods.
The project did, however, have a blind spot when it came to delivering vaccines, allocating too few resources for deployment and communication about the new products. While vaccine delivery picked up after January, that initial oversight has hampered the immunization effort throughout 2021, even as new variants spread throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
Saad B. Omer is the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and a professor at the Yale University schools of medicine and public health.
Upending the trade debate
By Katheryn Russ
Advanced economies have experienced massive surges in imports from low-wage countries in the past half-century. This is partly a natural result of nations integrating into the global economy under the relative peace maintained by American military might. Export-led growth helped eradicate poverty. But U.S. manufacturers became an open target, some argue, with cheap rival imports overwhelming aging marquee American industries.
Developing nations like China, India and Indonesia created a latecomers’ quandary for advanced economies. They entered the global trading system after the United States and its allies drastically lowered tariffs on manufactured goods for all members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor, the World Trade Organization. This left rich countries with little leverage to entice newer members to let go of the production subsidies they still view as key to their miraculous rise from poverty.
China and other developing economies continue using the subsidies that helped them escape hunger, despite having grown large enough that these strategies now distort global markets and cause hunger elsewhere. If China subsidizes loans to domestic steel or solar-panel producers, that depresses global prices, squashing industry profits and job growth in other countries.
As he picks up the pieces, President Biden faces the challenge of building consensus on a way forward — one that neither reflexively reverts to the old rules nor adopts the same distortionary policies that helped spark the trade war in the first place.
Katheryn Russ, a senior economist for international trade and finance for the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2015 and 2016, is a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis.
Ending the mortgage interest deduction
By William Gale
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which President Donald Trump signed in December 2017, significantly reduced the importance of the mortgage interest deduction for owner-occupied housing — an overdue change that makes the tax system more efficient and equitable.
In general, taxpayers choose to take a standard deduction or to itemize (and deduct) various expenses. Mortgage interest, which constitutes a substantial part of many homeowners’ monthly housing payments, is among those deductible expenses. But the 2017 law substantially raised the standard deduction, decreasing the incentive to itemize: The share of homeowners taking the mortgage interest deduction promptly tumbled from 21 percent in 2017 to 9 percent in 2018. (The bill also reduced the maximum amount of mortgage principal eligible for the deduction.)
The deduction has essentially served as a subsidy for the upper middle class (and up) that encourages people to buy overly large homes, driving up housing prices. It’s defended on the grounds that it encourages homeownership, but numerous studies suggest that it doesn’t — partly because first-time homeowners often either don’t itemize or are in low tax brackets.
Once seen as a middle-class birthright, the deduction is now largely the province of the rich: In 2018, nearly 80 percent of the benefit went to households earning in the top 20 percent. Eliminating the deduction entirely — and perhaps creating a tax credit for first-time home buyers (like the federal credit available for first-time buyers in D.C.) — is the next logical reform. But Trump oversaw a good first step.
William Gale holds the Miller chair at the Brookings Institution and is a co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
By Alina Polyakova
The Trump administration certainly had no coherent strategy on Russia — the president was often saying (or tweeting) one thing and the government doing another. With Donald Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin on full display during the 2016 campaign, the Kremlin no doubt hoped for yet another restart to the relationship.
But Moscow didn’t get what it wanted. During Trump’s term, the United States expelled 60 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain, opened the door to sales of lethal weapons to Ukraine (something the Obama administration did not do), and sanctioned a slew of Russian individuals and entities. While Trump signed a 2017 sanctions bill only reluctantly in the face of a veto-proof majority, the administration deployed sanctions authorities to target Russian military intelligence officers, employees of the Internet Research Agency and its mastermind Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and Russian oligarchs and their holdings. Sanctions against Oleg Deripaska and his aluminum conglomerate, EN+, eventually forced the company to restructure its board by adding British and American directors (after which the United States rolled the sanctions back). Perhaps most irritating to the Kremlin, the administration sanctioned companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — a critical energy project that, if completed, would allow Russia to increase its gas exports to Europe while bypassing the pipeline running through Ukraine.
Indeed, sanctions became a favorite tool of the Trump administration, used to respond to Russian activities in Venezuela and to punish human rights abuses and illicit financial dealings. But on the whole, the administration did not use the full scope of authorities granted by sanctions law, nor did it apply sanctions strategically to achieve any specific behavioral change from Russia — as was the case with Obama-era sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions were deployed, at least, but Trump’s government watered down an otherwise powerful policy tool, leaving the Biden White House with its hands tied.
Alina Polyakova is president and chief executive of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.
Eliminating a threat
By Michael O’Hanlon
Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was the most important military chief in Iran and perhaps the country’s second-most-powerful leader overall. Soleimani’s machinations led to the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq, largely because the Quds Force funneled lethal devices and technology to militias and insurgents fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces there.
Iran’s lack of restraint in killing Americans removed one major argument against political assassination in general: the fear of legitimating a tactic that would then be used against our own citizens. Soleimani crossed the assassination threshold first and often, attacking Americans with abandon. America’s history toward Iran is checkered — it supported the shah before 1979 and Saddam Hussein (at times) during the Iran-Iraq War. But more recently, Iran has used lethal force against the United States much more than the United States has against Iran, and for 22 years, Soleimani — who was widely and credibly believed to be planning additional attacks in Iraq — was the chief plotter.
Donald Trump had an unrealistic overall Iran policy that amounted to advocacy of regime change. And he was inconsistent with the U.S.-Iraq relationship, which remains in jeopardy after Soleimani’s death. But taking this brutal killer off the battlefield saved American and Iraqi lives.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research at the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program. He is the author of “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint.”
Weakening ‘Nerd Prom’
By Ana Marie Cox
Donald Trump’s greatest gift to the United States was to reveal hard truths about who we are. His bigotry, shallowness and greed made our own harder to bear. Trump’s dark mirror effect may have manifested most forcefully in the way he warped the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, a.k.a. “Nerd Prom.”
Ostensibly, Trump’s entire grievance-driven 2016 campaign had its roots in the upbraiding that Barack Obama set upon him from the dinner’s podium in 2011, and that alone would be reason to kill off the whole tasteless affair. By the time Trump took office in 2017, large news organizations were already declining to buy tables and warning their staffers against attending a party whose stated purpose was to raise money for scholarships, but which actually drew reporters for mercenary “beat-sweetening” purposes or, even more tragically, to gain a brief contact high from the presence of genuine celebrities — an upgrade from the usual cocktail-circuit “famous for D.C.” crew.
As president, Trump skipped the event for three years, holding political rallies outside the Beltway instead. Somehow, the dinner lumbered on, even as the guest list sank to the grimiest and most desperate Trump World characters (by 2019, the boldfaced names had dropped in font to include Rudy Giuliani and a bit player from the Russia plot in Season One, Rob Goldstone).
The 2020 night was canceled, of course, as was the 2021 event. Can the pandemic’s more literal form of noxious communicability finish it off for good? If so, we’ll have Trump to thank, ultimately. Yes, we might still have been in lockdown by April 25, 2020, last year’s original date, no matter what kind of heroic leadership we’d had at the helm. But the combination of Trump’s reflected ingloriousness and the hard rattling and reconsideration of our priorities brought on by the pandemic can keep this tacky tradition dead. Scholarships can be funded in a way that doesn’t trade in indignity. And it was never much fun, anyway.
Ana Marie Cox is the host of Crooked Media’s “With Friends Like These” podcast.
Diversifying the GOP
By Geraldo Cadava
Donald Trump was intent from the start on winning support for his candidacy — and by extension, Republicans — among minority voters: Not even a month after his 2015 campaign announcement maligning Mexican immigrants, Trump said that if he won the GOP presidential nomination, “I’ll win the Latino vote.” The next year, he courted Michigan’s Black voters by asking them, “What the hell do you have to lose?” by taking a chance on him. He didn’t win the Black, Latino or Asian American vote that year or in his losing reelection bid. But he did diversify his appeal.
In 2016 and 2020, according to exit polls, Trump won, respectively, 28 and 32 percent of Latino votes, 27 and 34 percent of Asian American votes, and 8 and 12 percent of Black votes. It was a marked improvement among Black voters from GOP nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, who won only 4 and 6 percent, respectively, and roughly on par with their showings among Latinos and Asian Americans. Trump affirmed that Republicans can continue to win diverse support because Democrats have, at times, taken voters of color for granted and reduced their interests to putatively ethnic-group-based concerns such as immigration, instead of foregrounding how Democratic policy plans would improve their lives more than Republican initiatives would.
Trump’s gains were incremental, and more than 70 percent of non-White voters still chose Democrat Joe Biden. (And some think of 2020 as more akin to 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won 44 percent of Latino, 43 percent of Asian American and 11 percent of Black votes.) But the gains by Trump — who often deployed xenophobic or race-baiting rhetoric — suggest there’s more room for Republicans to convert minority voters across the socioeconomic spectrum and around the country. Of the ascendant Latino electorate, University of California at Berkeley professor Ian Haney López notes, “The lesson from divergent views among Latinos may be that we should think of race not in terms of fixed identities but in terms of complex beliefs about belonging, respect and threat.” As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted in November, Trump, hard as it is to believe, may have opened the door for the Republican Party to become “a multi-ethnic multi-racial coalition of working AMERICANS.”
Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University, is the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump.”
Redirecting Middle East diplomacy
By Aaron David Miller
Donald Trump was far less interested in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a struggle that has outlasted every postwar president — and far more in a 22-state outcome, normalizing Israel’s relations with the Arab world, especially Persian Gulf countries. Building on ties between Israel and key gulf states that had been developing for two decades, and propelled by a common interest in restraining Iran’s regional ambitions, the Trump administration invested heavily in cultivating close personal relationships with leaders of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It approved weapons sales to those nations, exerted maximum pressure on Tehran and served as a facilitator between gulf Arab nations and Israel.
The costs of such an approach were clear. The Israeli-Palestinian issue wasn’t so much ignored as it was undermined by a Trump peace plan comically biased in favor of Israel, leaving it dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Trump’s catering to Saudi Arabia allowed its reckless and ruthless crown prince to pursue a disastrous war in Yemen and repression at home with tacit American support. Washington also recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region in a questionable quid pro quo that helped spur Morocco to begin establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
Still, the gains were impressive. The Abraham Accords that Israel signed with the UAE and Bahrain, and the normalization processes launched between Israel and Sudan, and Israel and Morocco, reflected a spirit of pragmatism not seen in this conflict-ridden region in decades. Though these agreements did not end bloody wars, they survived the May clash between Israel and Hamas. And should Saudi Arabia begin a normalization process with Israel — perhaps less likely now that Trump is no longer president — it might represent the start of a fundamental shift in the Middle East.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a State Department analyst, negotiator and adviser in Democratic and Republican administrations.