President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union speech...

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. Credit: AP / Michael Probst

Despite the incessant media uproar — some of it caused by the man himself — President Donald Trump hasn’t been the disaster his opponents expected. In both policy and process, his successes mirror his failures.

In a wide picture, the solid state of the U.S. economy and the defeat of the Islamic State are the signature events of Trump’s first year in office. Recessions are a fact of life — but the U.S. economy, unless held back by bad policy, will always pull itself out of the ditch. And tax reform — more on that later — is good policy.

As for ISIS, it was on its way down when Trump, who delivers his State of the Union on Tuesday, came into office. A more aggressive approach finished it off. But the problem is that we’ve seen this movie before: We crush a jihadi group, only to see it metastasize elsewhere. This battle against ISIS may be over; the war is not.

But important as they are, the economy and ISIS aren’t as interesting as the way Trump has dealt with the policy preferences of the establishment. Much of Trump’s appeal in 2016 stemmed from his image as a speaker of unfashionable truths. In office, things have been different. By and large, he’s walked a line of challenging the establishment when it was fashionable but wrong, and hewing to it when it was stolid but right.

He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Well, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Why not admit it? He got the United States out of the Paris climate accord. It wasn’t about cutting carbon emissions, it was about making promises to cut carbon emissions. It was a phony — and good riddance.

The establishment loves the European Union. Trump doesn’t. Sensibly, he wants a deal with Brexit Britain. And why not? On the other hand, the establishment likes NATO, and it turns out so does Trump. Far from leaving Europe to Russia, the United States has beefed up its forces there.

It’s only when we come to trade in the Americas and the Pacific that Trump’s maverick tendencies have challenged the establishment at its core. His hostility to the North American Free Trade Agreement is long-standing. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, thanks to him, we have new taxes on imported washing machines.

Thanks to Trump, we also have tax cuts. Having a globally competitive corporate tax rate is good, but even better is not taxing corporate earnings abroad at the U.S. rate.

So with the exception — and it’s a major one — of trade, Trump’s managed to strike a decent balance between challenging establishment policies and backing them. The same is true when it comes to process: several successes, but a loss of balance in one crucial area.

On the plus side, the administration has done a sterling job of fast-tracking judicial nominees, and it’s moved to reduce regulatory burdens. But it’s been bad at filling positions in the government itself.

Yes, Senate Democrats have been obstructive. But most of the blame belongs to the White House. The result has been to hand power to a bureaucracy that, by and large, doesn’t like Trump, and to stall initiatives for a lack of anyone to approve them.

One example: export control reform, which would cut red tape by transferring the control of nonmilitary firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department. It was going to happen under President Barack Obama, but it didn’t — and without Trump’s political appointees at the State Department, it might keep on waiting.

Trump creates a lot of noise, much of it counterproductive. Yet if you look past the noise, the administration that ran against the swamp has, in office, challenged establishment follies while backing most of its good ideas. But unless it strengthens its bench, that may be a difficult balance to hold.

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


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