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Presidencies in the rear view mirror

Failures today might be considered successes in the future and vice versa.

President Harry S. Truman greets members of the

President Harry S. Truman greets members of the armed services in 1947, three years before the U.S. intervened in Korea. Photo Credit: Handout / Abbie Rowe/National Park Service

Presidents are often hailed in retrospect for what were condemned as failures while in office. The converse is true, too: victories in the Oval Office are frequently ephemeral. President Donald Trump may be the exception to many rules, but in this regard, he is conforming to the pattern of his predecessors.

The classic example of a president who suffered for making the right choice is Harry S. Truman. By intervening in the Korean War, he saved South Korea and showed the Soviet Union that America had the backbone for a fight. It was a courageous decision, but as the war dragged on, it hurt him in the polls.

Or take Ronald Reagan. During his early years in office, millions of protesters marched demonstrating his supposed love of nuclear weapons. But in fact, Reagan was appalled at the prospect of nuclear war. He had thought deeply about how to avoid it. He just didn’t believe that marching was the answer.

And most recently, there was President Barack Obama. He started off spending like there was no tomorrow — his stimulus package alone burned $831 billion. But helped by the election of a Republican House in 2010, federal spending stabilized. It will be hard to describe Obama as simply a liberal tax and spender.

So what about Trump? What failures today might be successes tomorrow, and vice versa?

The media criticizes Trump so continuously that we have a lot of purported failures from which to choose. But three of the biggest ones are the U.S. relationship with Russia, Trump’s supposedly disdainful attitude toward international institutions and trade policy.

On Russia, the Trump administration has been tougher than Obama. U.S. tanks are back in Europe; we’re selling anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, and we’ve quit the INF Treaty with Russia. In retrospect, Trump’s Russia policy will look like a successful return to Cold War deterrence.

The treaty is one of those institutions Trump supposedly hates. But a central error of recent U.S. foreign policy has been to believe excessively in the power of institutions. A club doesn’t just need a house: it needs rules. One of the problems with the treaty is that its rules don’t work. Reagan put it best: trust, but verify. Trump has added a corollary: if you can’t verify, don’t trust.

And then there is trade. Trump’s tariffs are bad for the U.S. economy. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was foolhardy. But Trump’s hardball act over NAFTA may have given him the political capital to do the bigger deals with Britain, Japan, and the EU that the administration has announced it wants to negotiate. The story of Trump and trade isn’t finished yet.

How about successes that turn into failures? A possibility is the Supreme Court: Republican presidents have a remarkable knack for picking nominees who turn out to be liberals. But my bet is on the economy.

Cutting corporate taxes and reducing the burden of regulation is good policy. What isn’t good is that Trump has done nothing to change our unsustainable budget path. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, over the next 30 years, partly driven by rising entitlement spending, debt will grow to 152 percent of GDP. Its effects will swamp Trump’s tax and regulation victories.

Thanks in part to a cyclical recovery, the economy is doing well. But Trump’s good policies have not abolished the economic cycle. Nor should we fall into the error of believing the economic growth begins in the White House. Presidents can hurt growth, but they can’t cause it.

The problem isn’t merely that Trump is ignoring our debt. Like Obama, he’s burning the years in which we could be addressing it. Trump’s economic policy, now crowned by growth, will be dominated by debt. The road ahead looks bad. In the rear view mirror, it will look even worse.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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