What a difference a year makes.
Riding a strong economy and having been acquitted of impeachment charges, President Trump triumphantly declared on February 5, 2020 that “the state of our Union is stronger than ever before.”
Though Trump was never popular with a majority of the public, he was favored to win re-election over a scattered Democratic field of candidates. The presumed front-runner, Democrat Joe Biden, finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary.
One year later, the U.S. experienced a pandemic, a recession, social unrest, Trump’s election defeat, his refusal to accept the results, an assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a second impeachment.
Today, Biden will become the 46th president of the United States, and the process of assessing Trump’s legacy will begin.
Trump and his supporters want us to remember pre-pandemic America.
In a list of “Trump Administration Accomplishments,” the White House boasted of delivering an unprecedented economic boom, tax relief for the middle class, U.S. energy independence, fair trade deals, a secure border, enhanced religious freedom, and a remade federal judiciary.
Trump’s critics and victims do not want us to forget Charlottesville, the “Muslim ban,” family separation, George Floyd, “stand back and stand by,” 3,400 conflicts of interest, 30,000 lies, and 400,000 Americans dead from COVID-19.
History is usually not kind to one-term presidents, and Donald Trump will be no exception.
Still, judging a president’s legacy is no easy task.
Despite how firm our opinions may be of an outgoing president, there is much we don’t know.
Historians regarded Dwight Eisenhower as a do-nothing president until declassified documents revealed how hard he worked behind the scenes to maintain peace and prosperity (as well as the image of do-nothingness).
Will we ever know the source of Trump’s bewildering attachment to Vladimir Putin and what the consequences of that relationship for U.S. national security were?
Standards change over time. Harry Truman’s forthrightness shined in the midst of Watergate. Even Richard Nixon looks better now for accepting a close election defeat in 1960 and resigning from the presidency peacefully in 1974.
The impact of decisions made presently may not be known for decades. Will record-setting budget deficits have an adverse effect on future generations? After four years of climate and science denialism under Trump, is it too late to combat global warming?
How much should we attribute events and historical changes to presidents themselves or to larger trends? How would other individuals have performed in similar circumstances?
Should pre-2020 economic growth be attributed to Trump, his predecessor Barack Obama (who took office at the depth of the Great Recession), both, or neither?
Trump deserves credit for Operation Warp Speed, which developed anti-coronavirus vaccines more quickly than experts predicted. But it is hard to believe that a Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Jeb Bush would have pursued COVID remedies less decisively.
On the other hand, it is hard to believe that most would-be presidents would react as passively or as ineptly to the onset of the pandemic as did Trump.
Presidents may have to wait a long time for their reputations to change. It took over a century for historians to recognize the achievements of Ulysses S. Grant – once regarded as one of our worst presidents – in promoting Reconstruction.
It may take a Grant-like period of time, if ever, for Donald Trump’s rehabilitation in the history books. As the first president to be impeached twice and possibly convicted for inciting insurrection against the United States, his place in presidential infamy is secure.
Like James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, Trump handed severe crises to his successor.
Compared to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who inherited their predecessors’ messes, Biden has to manage several crises at once, including what to do about the misdeeds of his predecessor. At the same time, the leadership tools he has to wield are not as strong as they used to be.
Biden may well rely on a stronger role for the federal government, seeking more progressive and far-reaching changes than anyone expected a year ago.
However, Biden’s response runs against decades of cynicism and distrust of government, mirrored by the miniscule majorities Democrats will have in Congress, the hollowed-out administrative state, and the extreme partisan polarization that Trump exacerbated with his crusades against facts and the legitimacy of opponents.
Which means that Biden’s presidential legacy, like it or not, is tied inescapably to Trump’s.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers can follow him on Twitter @McCleleF.