Various commentators and publications (including some from TheWeek.com) have already declared Donald Trump the worst president in American history. This seems to me wrongheaded, and not just because I have certain misgivings about the very idea of presidential rankings. But I can say without hesitation that Trump is not only far from our worst president, but a much better one than both of his immediate predecessors.
This should not be such a hard argument to make. Iraq alone should and ultimately will seal George W. Bush's reputation as one of the least qualified men ever to hold the title of commander-in-chief. Nice guy. Would love to catch a ball game with him or talk about painting at a Houston barbecue. Charismatic, too — but also pollyannish, a failson, and a poor judge of character. If only Jeb were less of a dork.
Barack Obama was, at least initially, a brilliant rhetorician. But his achievements in office were few. The Affordable Care Act was at best a stopgap and at worst a sop to insurance companies, whose stranglehold over the provision of medical care is now all but unbreakable. On the advice of Hillary Clinton, he overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, the mad eccentric who had ruled Libya for many years. The result is the migration crisis that has destroyed European social democracy. No president has done more to speed up the destruction of the post-war world order than Obama, albeit unwittingly. His only significant attempt at diplomacy, the nuclear deal made with Iran, was a meaningless formal exercise in making a deal for its own sake.
Trump himself is a mediocre president at best. But there are reasons to be optimistic about his future in office. Chief among these is his increasing willingness to be the ringmaster at his own circus. That Trump's instincts are better than those of his advisers is inarguable. Among the achievements of so-called adults in the room such as outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis and outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly were an erstwhile indefinite commitment to war in Syria and Afghanistan, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the policy of parental separation at the U.S. border.
Trump is attempting, by fits and starts and with the irresolution of a man who does not care about or understand details, to remake the nature of America's alliances. These have been based on sentimentality to the detriment of both American interests and world peace. He is trying likewise to undo the regime of globalized free trade that has made the rich wealthier while destroying American industry and covering our planet in disposable toxic junk made by slaves. His motivations might not be lofty or even coherent, but the high ideals that animated his predecessors didn't get them very far. Trump may be a boor, but he is not a fool. In foreign affairs he has been both prudent and wise.
On domestic policy it is harder to find anything good to say about his two years in office. One unexpected bright spot, however, is the criminal justice reform bill he signed into law recently. This legislation reverses the capricious Clinton-era policies that have brutalized at least two generations of American men. The 2017 GOP tax bill was pointless, expensive, and futile. Even the president barely seems to remember that it happened. The priorities of the Republican party are not his own; he must make this explicit going forward.
It is on immigration that I think Trump has shown himself at his worst. It is not clear to me that he cares even slightly about this issue beyond what he (rightly, alas) perceives to be its extraordinary propaganda value. Many of us who support some degree of restriction on immigration do so because we do not want to see American wages decline further and because we believe it is wrong to create a permanent servant caste in a country whose citizens should be considered equals. If he were concerned about these things, he would concentrate his energies on reducing the number of workers given temporary visas, which would force corporations to increase wages. Instead Trump's concerns seem to be with "illegal immigration," a proceduralist bugbear. I hope the cheap PR is worth it.
The best thing we can hope for is a future in which Trump continues with his present course on foreign policy and trade. He should continue to disregard the advice of the congressional Republican leadership, which cannot pass bills for him anyway, and that of the wider conservative movement. He ought to consider making some outré hires — Jim Webb for secretary of defense, for example. He should revert back to his 2015-era views in support of single-payer health care in some form, and use it as a wedge issue against the leadership of both political parties. A press conference in which Trump stands shoulder to shoulder with incoming Congresswoman Democratic Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) against incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to announce his plan for diamond-plated universal TrumpCare "like you wouldn't believe" would be glorious. He should also work out an infrastructure bill capable of passing the House and the Senate.
I do not expect all of these things to happen, but if even a few of them do, Trump will be the least bad president America has elected in my lifetime.