Dear President Trump,
I am writing to you on the third anniversary of your election for a number of reasons. First, this is a critical moment for your presidency—and for America. The election is a year away and at the same time you are facing impeachment.
On a personal note, I saw you give a speech this week at the New York Economic Club. And I was reminded by Facebook’s algorithm that I wrote you a letter upon your election three years ago. After re-reading the letter, and given these other markers, I decided it would make sense to ping you again.
Let me start by tipping my hat to you. Democrats don’t like to hear or acknowledge this, but generally speaking the economy is in good shape. Really good shape. It’s pretty irrefutable. The unemployment rate is 3.6%, the lowest it’s been in five decades. Wages are rising at the fastest rate in more than a decade (though inflation is taking a bite out of those gains) and consumer confidence is at its highest level since 2000. The stock market, at record levels, has climbed 44% since your election. True, economic growth is kind of meh—GDP only increased 1.9% in the third quarter, well below your target of 3%—but as far as developed economies around the globe, we’re at the top of the heap.
Democrats argue this is simply a continuation of the economic expansion that began under President Obama and that certainly is the case, but to what degree, who knows. At the very least, you deserve credit for sustaining growth.
What would the economy be like if Hillary Clinton were elected? I know you like to say it would have been a disaster, though of course here too, no one really knows.
Your speech at the Economic Club of New York betrayed few doubts. “I'm proud to stand before you, as President of the United States, to report that we have delivered on our promises and exceeded our expectations by a very wide margin,” you told us. That drew some applause from the capacity crowd of 1,350. “I was waiting for that,” you responded. “I almost didn't get it. Only the smart people are clapping.”
I have to hand it to you, Mr. President. You know your audience. Your tone was measured, almost as tame as when I saw you speak at Davos two years ago. A far cry from one of your red-meat, red-state rallies. Still, even though you had friends and acquaintances like Maria Bartiromo, Steve Schwarzman and at your left elbow, economic adviser Larry Kudlow on the dais, and the audience was mostly business people, (not New York City lefties) I didn’t feel that much love.
Why is that?
And why generally speaking, with all of the bountiful economic news do so many of us feel so badly?
Kenneth Osgood, a professor of History at the Colorado School of Mines, explains part of it: “Overall economic data conveys a sense of optimism but there are still large pockets of the population experiencing economic distress because of changes facing the country and wealth disparity.”
Ah yes. The divide between the haves and have nots. Income inequality continues to climb during your administration and is at its highest level in 50 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wealth inequality too is at unprecedented levels. Life expectancy for Americans has declined for the first time since World War I. Why? Opioid overdoses, alcoholism and suicide. No wonder there is little cheer.
And there’s another reason why so many Americans are disillusioned and distraught. It’s what Osgood calls, “the politics of division,” which he says “distract from economic realities.” Put simply, you want us to feel angry and scared, Mr. President. To be divided. This is your M.O. Your playbook to rally your base, as the political class says. Your roadmap to re-election.
Own up, Mr. President.
In the letter I wrote to you three years ago, (I never did hear back, but as you would say, that’s OK), I told you that bringing our country together was your most important priority. And you have not delivered. Not because you failed, but because you never tried. Yes, millions of Americans love you, but millions don’t. Even some people who like you, don’t like you, if you follow, (and I know you do).
“There is one thing I like about him,” says David R. Henderson, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “I like a Republican who fights back. [But] I think he’s a nasty man. I don’t think I’d want him as a friend, I don’t know if he even has friends.”
By way of example and keeping to the world of business, your treatment of Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell is an abomination and wouldn’t be tolerated in any fourth grade classroom. Or maybe now it would...
I don’t mean to pile on, but I should mention that I had dinner with a senior Wall Street executive this week, (he didn’t want to be named), who’s a big supporter of yours, and he told me with great disgust how you cheated playing golf with him, (echoing Rick Reilly’s book on the subject—if you can imagine—“Commander in Cheat.”)
“Presidential power has always been about at least creating the illusion of consensus,” says Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “Donald Trump is the first president to not try to win over people who didn’t vote for him.”
It’s true that any president will have haters, even more so in today’s hyper-politicized environment. But the degree to which people feel vitriol is unprecedented. I know what you would say: “Of course they don’t like me. I threaten their world. I get things done.” But I don’t buy that. You don’t have to be a Divider-in-Chief to achieve. Sometimes people called Ronald Reagan names, but usually not a jerk.
Realistically though, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to change your stripes at this point, Mr. President, so let’s turn to policy instead. In my 2016 letter, I suggested that there were three specific measures you might want to implement to close the economic gaps in our country; tax reform, an infrastructure build-out, and raising the minimum wage.
It’s interesting to see how this has played out.
With tax reform, I’m sure you’d say, “You’re welcome, America.” To which I would say, well, kind of. Yes, you cut corporate taxes, and taxes for some citizens, but studies show much of those cuts went to the wealthy. Real reform, real help for working people, cutting loopholes and the like? Did not happen.
As for infrastructure, nary a peep here. To be fair, this isn’t completely your fault. You and the Democrats agreed on a $2 trillion plan earlier this year—but oops, no agreement on how to pay for it. (Thankfully LaGuardia Airport here in New York City, a national embarrassment, is undergoing an $8 billion renovation.) Still, you could have prioritized infrastructure and pushed the GOP, which has generally blocked projects in blue states. By the way, I firmly believe that at some point soon, we’re going to need a massive infrastructure spend to boost the economy.
Not surprisingly, raising the minimum wage, never a favorite of the Republican party, hasn’t been at the top of your list. But because of the tight labor market and actions by states, the effective minimum wage, a national average guaranteed floor for wages, has climbed. You noted rising wages in your speech at the Economic Club, and even told the crowd of swells to bite the bullet: “...for the bottom income group, real wages are soaring,” you said. “That means you might make a couple of bucks less in your companies. You know what? That's OK—that's OK. This is a great thing for our country.” To that I say, bravo, Mr. President!
So, while you didn’t boost the minimum wage, pay has climbed some. Except ironically perhaps in mostly red states like Alabama, Texas, and Kansas where folks still make $7.25 an hour, unchanged from more than a decade ago, the longest amount of time the minimum wage has remained unchanged since it was first established in 1938. You said you care about the working poor in your speech, President Trump, so why won’t you raise these wages of those who need help the most?
Given that you’ve made little progress with real tax reform and infrastructure and haven’t raised the federal minimum wage, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that inequality is still a huge problem.
At this point Mr. President, you are either one year away from the end of your presidency—there’s also the impeachment route—or five years. As it stands now, your legacy would be mixed at best. Yes, the economy is going great guns, but with more and more people left behind, never mind in distress. And the divisiveness and incivility that I naively thought might just be part of your campaign will leave a deep stain on our nation.
“There are a lot of measures on which he’s going to go down historically as probably not very successful president,” says Elizabeth Cobbs, Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University and senior fellow Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “He was unable to fulfill campaign promises he came in with about immigration and building a wall. Since that was such a central part of his campaign, if you’re evaluating him on his ability to perform his own goals that’s not strong.”
President Trump, frankly, you need more wins. You can even look at Richard Nixon. He went to China. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and enhanced the power of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Mr. President, you have time to change your legacy—maybe a little, maybe a lot. Again, I understand you are who you are. But why not try for one big bipartisan win? You have an example here by the way, that being the progress you and the Democrats have made on criminal justice reform. So why not do this with infrastructure? Jobs. Big real estate projects. Infrastructure has your name written all over it!
I’m really hoping, sir, but I have my doubts.
You said in your speech this week, “I think the biggest risk is the election.” You may be right. But just not the way you think.
This article was featured in a special Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on November 16, 2019. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.