Trump v. Obama: Who Made America “Great Again?”
An analysis of 48 factors shows that Trump is not making America great again, and is doing worse than Obama in most areas.
President Trump chose “Make America Great Again” as his 2016 campaign slogan. Its appeal to his followers led him to continue using it throughout his presidency and into the current reelection bid. While he largely left explanations for the terms “great” or “again” to the imagination, the phrase rallied his supporters and certainly became a catchy phrase on baseball caps and t-shirts. But has he, indeed, made America great? Or has he at least moved us more in that direction?
Because “greatness” is a relative term (i.e., “great” compared to what or whom?), assessments of achievement would need to include comparisons between US and the rest of the world or, more relevantly, to comparable developed countries. Moreover, the “again” portion of the slogan suggests we were once great, but are no longer. Assessments, therefore, need to show where we once were, versus where we are now. To evaluate this aspect, this article also compares data from the Trump years to that of his predecessor, President Obama, whom he criticizes as having done poorly.
At a minimum, several core categories capture the essence of a country’s greatness: world influence and standing, military (defensive) capability, economic strength, democratic institutional strength, advanced educational system, domestic safety (e.g., crime), health, and environmental protection. Each of these, in turn, can be evaluated by reviewing data collected on its key components or elements (e.g., GDP growth rates, household incomes, debt, and poverty levels in the case of the economy).
Multiple sources rate the US number one in the world in six areas: world influence, military strength, military spending, nominal GDP, disposable income, and (in one survey) educational system. America is tied for number two in the world for mean years of education. In these areas, our country was ranked the same under Obama, and Trump, therefore, did not make the US great “again.” In none of the remaining categories or components did he move us into the top five countries in the world. And in one factor — US News and World Report’s “best country” survey — the US dropped out of the top five.
Overall, the data reveal that the scores or rankings decreased under Trump in 30 of the 48 key elements that were evaluated, particularly in world influence, democratic institutions, health, and the environment. Scores in some of the economic, safety, and health areas also deteriorated. He made improvements in just three areas, all economic-related. He neither significantly improved nor changed (i.e., basically matched Obama’s performance) in the remaining 15. Complicating all of this for Trump is the pandemic: his scores in 17 of the 48 components are likely to get worse.
To put these assessments in perspective, presidents can influence many of these “greatness” factors only so much, and their decisions and influence can, in some cases, take years to have noticeable impact. For other factors, however, the opposite is true: presidential decisions can have significant impact (e.g., the amount of national park area can be greatly expanded by a presidential designation, or military spending and budgets can skyrocket with a decision to go to war). Further, the actions of a president’s predecessors can impact the numbers (performance) during their successor’s term. For example, Obama inherited a recession while Trump inherited a fairly-robust economy, which impacted his early jobs and poverty numbers.
A review of the data shows that President Obama’s performance was significantly better, overall, than President Trump’s for the “greatness” factors reviewed. This was the case whether looking at the total change in value for a particular factor from the start to the end of the presidents’ terms or looking at yearly averages. And contrary to Trump’s slogan, he has not changed or improved our status in the world to “great again” upon review of the various country rankings. Looking forward, President Trump is unlikely to move our country into the “great” designation (i.e., top 5, or significant advances) for most, if not all of the factors given our world rankings and the technical challenges, trade-offs, and the length of time involved in improving them.
Key finding associated with each of the eight major categories are summarize below. The data findings are summarized in a table at the end of each section. (See full version of this report for further discussions, and data, on each of the 48 elements reviewed.)
The US is regarded as a world superpower, and few would debate its economic, military, technical, scientific, and cultural influence around the global. Nonetheless, our reputation, ability to control or influence foreign decisions, and skill at building alliances or negotiating treaties vary with each administration.
In this category, Trump’s performance rates significantly below Obama’s, and assessments of our position and leadership in the world have deteriorated (see Table 1). US favorability (preference for US leadership in the world) has dropped and confidence in US leadership dropped to an historic low. The US News and World Reports annual “best country” in the world dropped from us from fourth to seventh place. And confidence that the president “will do the right thing” dropped off the cliff.
The overall threat to the world, as assessed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has increased to its worst point, moving its “doomsday clock” minute hand to its closest point–100 seconds to midnight–in 2020, due to (among other reasons) leadership “ending or undermining major arms control treaties and negotiations…creation of an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race…the proliferation of nuclear weapons…and the ongoing political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.” 
Military and Peace
The US military was rated the most powerful in the world during all of the Obama years, and continues in that position under Trump (i.e., he has not made it great “again.”) We are number one in the overall power, air strength, budget, and foreign bases. And we are ranked between second and fourth in nuclear weapons, manpower, navy, and artillery. While defense spending has been rising under Trump, it has not reached the highs of the peak Obama years (during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars).
Our record on the peace front, however, is not similarly strong. Indeed, updated data provided by the Global Research Organization reveals that the US has been involved in wars and conflicts 223 out of 244 years since 1776. While Obama inherited the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, his troop draw-down numbers were significant. Despite Trump’s campaign promise to extract the US from various conflicts and hostile areas, circumstances have prevented him from removing significant numbers of troops or American advisers, and his numbers actually rose in war zones. (He is currently working to reduce these numbers.)
The non-partisan Institute for Economics and Peace produces a yearly report called the “Global Peace Index (GPI),” that assesses the state of peace based on such factors as internal conflicts, support to external conflicts, arms-related agreements, nuclear and conventional arms, and weapons sales. Our overall world ranking dropped 18 countries (to 121st out of 163) under Trump due to withdrawal from various peace agreements, increased weapons exports and imports per capita, a rise in military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, and a rise in the armed services rate.
Trump’s performance in the economic area is mixed, though it is the only area in which he performed better than Obama in some (though not most) of its component areas. Trump outperformed Obama in three areas: pre-virus household savings, poverty rate, and GDP rate. Trump essentially matched Obama in two areas−nominal GDP and household disposable income−where the US ranked the highest in the world under both presidents. Obama outperformed Trump in the remaining six areas: the GDP rate with the recessions, the national debt, the trade deficit, the unemployment rate, income inequality, and the tax revenue gap between the public and corporations.
The Status of Democratic Institutions
Both presidents got bumps in public confidence in the major democratic institutions (the three branches of government, media, etc.) shortly after their elections, but the confidence then dropped and fluctuated. Overall, confidence remained low for both (25.7 percent). Trust in the president to do the right thing fluctuated under Obama but has been dropping under Trump and is now below Obama’s average.
The US does well in freedom indexes, such as the Cato Institute’s, which rank countries by rule of law, security and safety, movement, religion, trade freedom, expression and information, and assembly. The US scores fairly highly in the world rankings, although not clearing the top-10 bar. The US ranking relative to the 35 developed countries, however, is middle of the pack.
All the factors pertaining to stability and a well-run and clean executive office (turnover, indictments/scandals, lawsuits, and his impeachment) put Trump in historically-low company. In particular, 91 percent of his senior-level positions have had turnover, some up to six times, according to the Brookings Institution. No elected first-term president in the past 100 years has had as much Cabinet turnover this early in his presidency, according to National Public Radio reporting.
Further, Paul Nolette (Marquette University) found that state attorneys general had filed 103 multistate lawsuits against the federal government since Trump’s first day in office, four times higher than in President Obama’s first term. Adding to those woes, the Trump administration has lost approximately 86 percent of the legal challenges to its regulatory matters, according to New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. (Previous administrations won about 60 percent of the time.)
Transparency International organization’s “Corruption Perceptions Index,” reportedly the most widely used indicator of corruption worldwide, gave the US a score of 69 in 2019, dropping two points from the prior year, and receiving its lowest score on the index in eight years.
The US has an education system generally regarded as one of the world’s best (ranking between number one and just outside the top 10, depending on evaluation factors). Our mean years of education is also among the very best. The percentage of the population that achieves tertiary education is good relative to developed countries, but mediocre for secondary education. Despite our education system reputation, student performance in standardized tests remains fairly flat, and our ranking in the world is on the “good” but not “great” level. In general, Trump’s performance (when scores are available) remain roughly the same as Obama’s across the different factors.
On a positive note, the rates of some of the major types of violent crime dropped under both presidents. Unfortunately, other categories rose or didn’t drop to the low levels achieved in prior years. And our ranking, relative to the world and to developed countries, remained poor.
Obama’s 2014 numbers for reported hate crimes were the lowest number since national reporting commenced in 1992, although they rose towards the end. The numbers rose significantly by Trump’s second year and personal attacks reached a 16-year high in 2018 (the latest data available), according to the FBI.
Neither president did particularly well handling firearm violence. Despite our relative domestic tranquility, over 114,000 people are shot in the US each year, and roughly 40,000 die. Only one other country in the world exceeds our number of firearm deaths — Brazil. In an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, our firearm-related homicide rate in 2015 was 25 times that of other developed countries, and our gun suicide rate is 10 times that of other high-income countries. To put this in perspective, the US population is roughly 331 million. Japan, with a population of over 126 million, had a total of 76 gun-related deaths. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, had 3,893.
While the infant mortality trend under Trump is going down and life expectancy is basically flat, the remaining factors all point to worsening trends. The number of uninsured ended its downward trend under Obama and began rising with Trump’s policies. It is expected to increase dramatically with the loss of jobs due to the pandemic. For all the factors, the US position relative to the world, and particularly among developed countries, is mediocre to abysmal.
The progress under the Obama years has been curtailed by the various policy-reversals under Trump, and worsened by some natural events, global warming, and man-made activity. Overall, our pollution levels have been going in the wrong direction under Trump for the major pollution factors evaluated. The US scores well for concentrations of particulate matter-2.5 (small airborne particles that are especially dangerous to human health), but remains one of the world’s worst polluters. The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” study found that from 2016 to 2018, more cities had high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to its last reporting period of 2015 to 2017 and noted that nearly half the population — 150 million — live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution (at least one F). The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data show that the mortality rates from air pollution declined under Obama but began to rise again in Trump’s first year (the latest available data).
President Obama created more national monuments−29−than any President in history, and enlarged five others. Altogether, they covered over 550 million acres (most of which was ocean-related), thereby protecting more land and water area than any other president. President Trump signed a bi-partisan congressional bill in March, 2019 that created several national monuments and protected several million acres of land and wilderness. This was significantly offset, however, by the 35 million acres he opened to oil and gas drilling development, and his recent proclamations to open a 4,000-mile marine sanctuary to commercial fishing and 9.3 million acres of forest in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging.
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Mr. Forrester is a retired manager and senior-level analyst who spent over 40 years in the federal government. He has served on the staff and provided consulting services to a variety of organizations as a subject matter expert on political, military, and weapons of mass destruction issues. He has a master’s degree in political science and history from Xavier University, and currently is a free-lance writer on political topics.
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