Wednesday, February 1, 2017

BTRTN January 2017 Month in Review: Alternative Alternative Facts

Tom revives the Month in Review (complete with Trumpometer) to track the Trump Administration...

This is the first revival of our “Month in Review” articles, by which we track the course of the Trump presidency, as we did in the Obama years.  Each month we will provide pithy commentary on the events of the prior period, grounded as ever in an objective set of numbers.

“An objective set of numbers.”  An interesting phrase, these days.  The challenge of an objective exercise has never been greater.  Presidents have long been masters of obfuscation, battled with the press, misled the public and focused on friendly “facts” at the expense of inconvenient truths.  But it is safe to say that Trump has already set a new standard for misinformation, and he has done so brazenly, purposefully and outrageously.
Everything we needed to know about the Trump presidency was revealed on its Day One, with Trump’s meandering speech at CIA headquarters, when he obliterated the chance to make amends with the intelligence community (“Nazi Germany”) by focusing instead on his obsession with the attendance at his Inaugural.  He made incredible assertions about the magnitude of his audience in the face of very clearly observable facts (from aerial photography to metro traffic ridership to Nielsen ratings).  There was the think-skinned response to perceived criticism.  The off-message deflection of the main story.  The efforts to delegitimize the media, indeed, to position the media as the enemy, label every critical story as FAKE NEWS – and counter every fact with an “alternative” one.

But we at BTRTN will present data that have been accepted by generations of administrations, from approval ratings to economic metrics, and trace the arc of the Trump presidency wherever that leads us.  If “alternative facts” are the new normal, then we at BTRTN will offer you “alternative alternative facts” – otherwise known as “facts.”

The First Eleven Days

It has been a whirlwind.  The Twitter feed has continued unabated, the executive orders (17 so far) have come at a dizzying rate, and the missteps have indeed been magnified.  Trump thrives on discord, and has quickly adopted a siege mentality as the preferred permanent condition.  Sean Spicer and Reince Preibus are on the front lines, in the unenviable position of trying to divine logic from illogical acts.  (Spicer seems the more comfortable in this role of the two, Preibus betrays his discomfort with widened eyes at certain junctures.)

But it was the normally maddeningly competent spinmeister Kellyanne Conway who uttered the most memorable phrase thus far, the startlingly perfect revelation that the Trump administration traffics in “alternative facts.”  Like any good gaffe, it is powerful because it reveals an unvarnished truth, in this case, that the Trumpsters willfully ignore the ample evidence that the attendance at Obama’s first Inaugural had substantially outpaced Trump’s, and substitute their own unsupported opinions.  “Alternative facts,” indeed.

Trump also continued to battle the perception of his illegitimate election by reiterating his claim that there were 3-5 million illegal votes in the campaign, all against him and for Hillary Clinton.  There is, of course, not a shred of evidence behind this claim, but I bet you knew that already.  Trump also claimed that he would have won the popular vote if that was the goal of the election (and the Electoral College), because he would have focused on it instead.  Of course!

The strategy is clear:  keep the base stoked, and attacking the media and countering their fake news is proven red meat.  No assertion is too outrageous.  The campaign proved that the base had no “final straw” that would disqualify Trump in their eyes.  Will the Presidency prove that no whopper is too outrageous?

In terms of governing, Trump has taken the “executive order” to a new art form.  He issued 17 in January, as compared with Obama, who issued nine in January of 2009.  Some of Obama’s were quite consequential, including peeling back the excesses of George W. Bush’s enhanced interrogation orders.

But Trump’s executive orders have largely been designed to give the illusion of action without actually meaning very much at all.  Orders covering ISIS, Obamacare, the infamous Wall and bringing back torture all express a strong desire to go in a certain direction, but offer no plan to get there.  Obamacare is an excellent example.  The executive order could be interpreted as a directive to the Department of Health and Human Services to start granting exceptions to everyone who applies for one (thereby avoiding the “mandated” tax) but that of course would result in chaos.  So nothing has really happened.  A “direction” is hardly the same as a “plan,” and the GOP has yet to develop a unified health care plan that they can get through Congress, even though they control both houses.  And the executive order does nothing to move such a plan forward.

So, none of those executive actions meant too much – until the Ban.  The travel ban (oh, we are not supposed to call it a “ban” even though Trump called it, and I quote, a “ban”) actually meant quite a lot.  By the stroke of a pen, Trump banned anyone from coming into the United States from seven Islamic countries, for a 90-day period, just like that.  It might have been nice if Trump had sought the counsel of his highly respected Director of Homeland Security, John Kelly – charged with implementing the directive – before announcing it, but Kelly was briefed for the first time while Trump was signing it.  Mad Dog Mattis was not in the loop either.  Apparently a 31-year-old drafted it and the Trump Administration saw no reason to run it by any adults.

The result has been an utter fiasco, with 100+ human interest stories unfolding before a disbelieving America, students, children, government officials all being detained on their way to (or back to) America, including many who flew in right over the Statue of Liberty.  One has to wonder, why didn’t Trump, with all of his business skill, simply announce that the ban would be effective on March 1 to give full warning and avoid the disastrous airport optics?  If he wants to run the country like a business, what CEO would implement a sensitive policy with no thought, resulting in such disastrous visuals?  Even the fawning Paul Ryan labeled the initiative as “confusing” which was a strong critique from him (never mind that during the campaign, when Trump floated the ban idea, Ryan had said of it:  “This is not conservatism.”)

The ban also resulted in the first Nixon moment of the Trump era, our very first “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend the ban.

What else?  Oh, Steve Bannon is on the NSC, and the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence are off!  And you’re surprised? 

By the Numbers

On to our alternative alternative facts.

We will be tracking Trump monthly in two ways, his overall Approval Rating, which Gallup has been tracking since Truman, and by a set of economic statistics that we used to call the “Econometer” but now we call the “Trumpometer.”  Since Trump essentially ran as a businessman who would dramatically improve the “carnage” of the American economy, with job creation as his specialty, it seems natural to focus on these basic measures.

The Approval Rating.  Trump’s approval rating, starts at 44%, the lowest of any new President.  It is rather stunning to be reminded that the brand new President Obama achieved an incredible 68% approval rating in a divided America, and managed to leave office at 62% eight years later.  Bill Clinton left office with his ratings (66%) even higher than when he began; George W. Bush, on the other hand achieved the reverse (leaving with an abysmal 34% approval).

First-term President
Approval Rating Inauguration Day
Trump '17
Obama '09
Bush '01
Clinton '93

The Trumpometer.  We bring back our index of economic health and re-christen it the “Trumpometer.”  We developed it to provide a simple gauge to assess the question, “are we better off now than when this President took office?”  We picked (long ago) five measures that we thought were easily understood and long accepted as indicative of economic strength.  They may not be perfect, and we welcome input.  But they are: 
  •       Unemployment rate (U3), issued monthly by the BLS
  •       Consumer Confidence, measured monthly by the Conference Board
  •      Price of gasoline, reported weekly by the U.S. Energy Information Admin.
  •      The Dow Jones Industrial Average
  •      The GDP, measured quarterly 

Using these five measures, we then create a simple index.  We pick a point-in-time “baseline” – which we will now make January 20, 2017, Trump’s Inauguration Day – and calculate the percentage change on each measure going forward versus that baseline, and then take an average of those percentage changes.

You can see how it works with the chart below.  The economy was in good shape on January 20, 2001, the day Bill Clinton turned the White House over to George W. Bush.  Unemployment was low (4.2%), Consumer Confidence was high (well over 100, at 129), the price of gas was low (1.27 per gallon), the Dow was strong at 10,588 and the GDP was roaring at 4.5% in Q4 2000. 

When Bush left office – the middle column – the picture was starkly different.  Unemployment was soaring (7.8%), Consumer Confidence was in the pits (38), the Dow was well below where it was 8 years before, and the GDP was an abysmal -6.2.  You will recall a nation in the midst of its worst recession since the Depression.

Under Obama, the recovery is nearly complete, with the numbers resembling those in Clinton’s time, with the exception of GDP growth which has been decent but not “roaring.”

The Trumpometer Index captures this nicely.  Clinton’s end number of 25 means that the economy then was, on average (using these measures), about 25% stronger on each measure than it is now, driven mostly by that GDP number.  Bush’s end number was 53% worse than that of today.  So it is fair to say that, under Obama, the economy made it almost all the way back to the Clinton Era.  And now we re-set the Index, re-name it the Trumpometer, and see – objectively – where he takes it.  I think even Trump would agree these are important measures.

As of Inauguration Day
Clinton ends Bush begins 1/20/2001
Bush ends to Obama begins 1/20/2009
Obama ends Trump begins 1/20/2017
Trumpometer >>>
  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

Trump will, of course, assume more ownership for the economic numbers as time goes on, but he has already taken credit for the Consumer Confidence number that rose in December (no comment on the fall back in January).  And the GOP was happy to dump the rising unemployment rate in Obama’s first year on the new President.  So, accountability sometimes means taking the heat for things you cannot directly control.  Donald Trump, get used to it.

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