The Importance of a President’s First Year in Office

Though never fully conclusive, examining the history of past presidents’ first year in office provides a useful perspective on current presidents.
Donald Trump Withdraws from Paris Accord

Donald Trump announcing the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Accord, June 1, 2017.

It has been nearly a year since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. So what has his first year been like? How does his first year compare to other presidents? Does the record of a president’s rookie year tell us anything about the next three? Should a president’s first year record be compared with his or her predecessors or evaluated on its own merit, or a combination of both? What can be gained from such comparisons?

Depending on who’s speaking, President Trump’s first year in office has been either the “best first year in the history of all U.S. presidents” or “an unprecedented catastrophe.” A sampling of his supporters’ assessment tells us he has accomplished great things in his first year. He enforced the “red line” in Syria with a massive bombing campaign when its regime used chemical weapons on its people. He convinced NATO nations to contribute more toward their collective security, something past presidents have wanted, but failed to do. He declared a Nationwide Public Health Emergency on the opioid epidemic and authorized $500 million to fight the crisis. With Congress, he enacted an historic tax and regulatory reform that has unleashed economic growth and pushed the stock market to record heights.

President Trump’s critics are equally passionate in their criticism of him. He has turned the operation of the White House into a reality TV show. Through his cabinet appointments, he has rolled back 30 years of environmental protection, minimized the importance of science and education, and plummeted America’s stature on the international stage. He has savagely attacked fellow Republicans and members of his own administration that divert attention away from the work that needs to be done. He has failed to condemn some darker elements of society — people who promote bigotry and hate, thus indirectly (some would say, directly) endorsing their views.

Donald Trump and Alexandra Pelosi

Donald Trump and director Alexandria Pelosi for 'The Words That Built America' HBO documentary.

Of course, in today’s atmosphere of “fake news” and verbal partisan wrestling matches in cable news, these claims would have to be fact checked for accuracy. They would need to be analyzed to identify who wins and who loses, or if the actions had any impact at all. But let’s save that for another article.

So what about other presidents’ first years in office? Though never fully conclusive, examining the history of past presidents’ first year in office provides a useful perspective on current presidents. It also provides a greater understanding of how circumstances and surrounding events impact what a president’s performance is in his or her first year.

By its very nature, a president’s first year provides an unprecedented opportunity to set the tone for the next three years. The first year is unencumbered with the mid-term election campaign (conducted during a president's second year in office), or the president’s own reelection (oftentimes started during the third year). The president is fresh off the euphoria of winning an election and usually has the nation’s support.

Dwight Eisenhower Photo

Dwight Eisenhower

However, many presidents have accomplished major projects from their election agenda well into their first or even second terms. Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that authorized the Interstate Highway System in 1956, three and half years after taking office. At the time, the law was considered the most significant infrastructure legislation since the Railroad Acts of the 1860s. Six years into his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, simplifying the tax code and slashing tax breaks.

One of the first lessons most presidents learn as they transition from the campaign trail to the Oval Office is that the effort needed to make campaign promises are inversely proportional to the degree of effort needed to fulfill them. They need to make clear to the public that promises made on the campaign trail will be accomplished through a series of small, incremental, and sometimes painful steps, or sometimes not at all. President Obama was able to pass important initiatives from his progressive campaign agenda — the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, addressing the issue of wage discrimination for women; the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program; and the Affordable Care Act. Candidate Obama campaigned hard to close the Guantanamo prison facility but ran into great resistance, even from this own party, when he couldn’t figure out what to do with the prisoners and eventually left it open.

Bill Clinton Inauguration Photo

Bill Clinton

During their first year in office, presidents need to clearly define their relationship with Congress, their partner in legislation and appointments. If the president’s political party is that of the majority in both houses of Congress, it can make the process easier, but by no means a guarantee. Democrat President Bill Clinton, found this out when he couldn’t get health care reform passed in a Democratic-led Congress in 1993. Having single-party rule can also be a curse, bringing on unintended consequences. During Clinton’s first two years in office, Democrats voted 86 percent of the time for Clinton’s initiatives. This single-minded governing set the stage for the Republican congressional takeover in 1994.

Unforeseen events have oftentimes diverted many presidents’ attention in ways they never imagined or wanted. Woodrow Wilson was elected on a domestic platform in 1912. A year and a half later, World War I broke out and demanded his attention through the rest of his presidency. George W. Bush’s first term campaign focused on domestic policies and restructuring government. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, pushed the Middle East and international terrorism to the top of his agenda.

President Trump’s first year in office had been many things to many people. The list of descriptive adjectives is endless and polarized. A president’s success or failure in the first year isn’t always an indicator of success or failure in later years. Presidents soon discover that carrying out campaign promises is much harder than making them. Having their party in power during the first term is no guarantee of success. Sometimes, great things are accomplished with mixed government and bipartisan engagement. One thing is for certain, unforeseen circumstances always arise and always require presidents to take actions that they nor the nation had anticipated on Election Day.