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How Will We Know If Trump Is Succeeding?

Sick of stories about President Trump’s first 100 days yet? Good, this is not a story about his first 100 days. It’s a story about everything that comes after.

Or, more to the point, it’s a story about how we should evaluate everything that comes after. The “100 days” benchmark may be arbitrary (as Trump keeps reminding us), but it’s as good a moment as any to begin the transition from asking “What will Trump do?” to asking “What has Trump done?” Trump came into office making big promises; he has now been in office long enough that we can start evaluating whether he is keeping them.

But how do we do that? Various news outlets are tracking his progress on keeping explicit campaign pledges. That’s a good and worthwhile endeavor. But it’s also inherently incomplete. For one thing, Trump didn’t make many definitive promises during the campaign trail — “build the wall” is easy enough to check, but how do you measure whether America has started “winning” again? Besides, all presidents break promises as campaign rhetoric meets governing reality. What really matters is how successfully they deliver on their larger vision for the country.

Evaluating that kind of bigger-picture success is hard, though, especially in real time and especially in the case of Trump. Trump is such a divisive and controversial figure that it’s hard to find anyone who can evaluate his performance objectively. Moreover, the Trump administration has thus far proved so chaotic — so full of proposals, reversals, rumors and palace intrigue — that it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening from day to day, let alone to keep it all in perspective.

To evaluate Trump fairly, then, we need a system that we can use to keep track of whether he is achieving his goals. And we have to decide on the measures we’re using ahead of time to avoid the temptation to cherry-pick data that fits our own biases.

FiveThirtyEight, with the help of our readers, is going to develop such a system. At the end of this article are a handful of measures that FiveThirtyEight staffers think will help capture Trump’s success or failure. But it’s a preliminary, incomplete list — we’re counting on readers to help fill in the gaps. Please send us your suggestions; we’ll be collecting them through this form.

What are we looking for? A few guidelines:

  • We’re interested in outcomes, not how he gets there. Trump has already broken his promise to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. But that was merely a tactic Trump planned to employ to move toward the larger purpose of narrowing the trade deficit and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. We’re interested in how successful Trump is at achieving those bigger-picture goals.
  • We’re interested in Trump’s goals, not anyone else’s. Trump cares a lot about the trade deficit (something many economists say doesn’t matter much) and very little about global warming (something most scientists consider an urgent threat). Those may or may not be the right priorities, but they are Trump’s priorities. We’re evaluating how well he does against his own promises. (This definitely isn’t the only way to evaluate a president, and we’d love to see other efforts to track Trump against a different set of benchmarks.)
  • We’re interested in policy, not politics. How Trump fares as a politician is important, not least because it could decide how the Republican Party fares in 2018 and 2020. That’s why we’re already tracking Trump’s popularity, as well as his support in Congress. But for this exercise, we’re just interested in policy success.
  • We don’t care about credit. Figuring how much credit or blame presidents deserve for what happens on their watch is tricky. Presidents can influence the economy to some degree, but they certainly don’t control it. They control the military, but not the global context in which they must decide on military action. So for the purposes of this exercise, forget about credit — if manufacturing jobs soar on Trump’s watch, then we’ll chalk that up as a win.
  • It has to be measurable. Not all presidential achievements are readily measurable. Franklin Roosevelt restored hope during the Depression; Ronald Reagan (at least by one common narrative) restored American pride during the Cold War. But we’ll leave that kind of assessment to historians. We’re interested only in progress we can measure. (Bonus points for data that is released quickly and updated frequently.)

So with those criteria in mind, how should we track Trump? Below is FiveThirtyEight’s initial list. Send us your ideas — metrics we should use, promises we should evaluate, even better ways of measuring the subjects listed here — and we’ll publish FiveThirtyEight’s full Trump tracker in the coming weeks.

What we’re measuring: Manufacturing jobs
Why we’re measuring it: On the campaign trail, Trump talked repeatedly about bringing back factory jobs lost to countries where labor is cheaper. (He talked less about the role automation has played in manufacturing’s decline.)
The fine print: We’ll track seasonally adjusted employment in the manufacturing sector using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The story so far: The manufacturing sector has added jobs in each of Trump’s first three months in office (we’ll get April data on Friday). But the total increase of 49,000 jobs (counting January, when Trump took office) barely registers compared to the nearly 5 million jobs the industry has lost since 2000.

What we’re measuring: Coal jobs
Why we’re measuring it: “We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Trump vowed when he secured the Republican nomination back in May 2016, one of many times he made similar promises.
The fine print: We’ll track seasonally adjusted employment in the coal mining sector using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The story so far: Employment in the coal-mining sector has edged up slightly since Trump took office, but by less than 1,000 jobs total (again counting January). The coal industry is tiny, employing only about 50,000 people nationwide. It is, however, economically and culturally significant in West Virginia and other states.

What we’re measuring: The trade deficit
Why we’re measuring it: Trump has repeatedly cited the U.S. trade deficit as evidence that we are “losing” to foreign competitors, and he has made narrowing the deficit an explicit goal of his administration.
The fine print: We will track the quarterly trade deficit (nominal exports minus nominal imports, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate) as a share of U.S. gross domestic product.
The story so far: The trade deficit was about 2.9 percent of GDP in the first three months of the year, very close to what it was at the end of 2016. Many economists think Trump will have trouble narrowing the deficit significantly, but they also argue that trade deficits aren’t necessarily a bad thing. (One thing to watch: The Trump administration is reportedly considering changing the way it calculates the trade deficit.)

What we’re measuring: Prime-age employment rate
Why we’re measuring it: Trump famously dislikes the unemployment rate, which he has called “phony” and a “hoax.” And while those claims are false (and irresponsible), he’s right that the unemployment rate can be misleading because it leaves out people who have stopped looking for work. By focusing on how many people are working, we can avoid fights over how best to count those who aren’t.
The fine print: We will use seasonally adjusted BLS data on the share of the population that is employed each month. We will focus on the “prime-age” population (ages 25-54) so that the data isn’t skewed by the retirement of the baby boom generation and other long-term trends.
The story so far: After plummeting during the 2008-09 recession, the prime-age employment rate has been rising in recent years, a trend that has held steady since Trump took office. It remains well below its prerecession level, however.

What we’re measuring: U.S. murder rate
Why we’re measuring it: Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have spoken frequently (albeit often inaccurately) about U.S. crime rates, and particularly about the increasing number of murders in many big cities.
The fine print: We will use official crime statistics from the FBI once available. However, because the FBI’s data is released only once a year and only after a long lag (the most recent data available right now is from 2015), we will supplement it with data from large U.S. cities, which is available more quickly.
The story so far: Too soon to say. Murders have continued to rise this year in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans, but other cities, including Chicago, have seen murders hold steady or decline.

What we’re measuring: Health care uninsurance rate
Why we’re measuring it: Trump has promised that repealing the Affordable Care Act won’t leave people without insurance — in fact, he has promised “insurance for everybody.”
The fine print: The Census Bureau produces annual data on insurance and uninsurance, but the figures are released only after a long lag. So instead we’ll rely on Gallup’s quarterly data, which is widely respected.
The story so far: The uninsurance rate among adults rose slightly in the first three months of the year to 11.3 percent, but it is still well below pre-Obamacare levels.

What we’re measuring: U.S. oil and gas production
Why we’re measuring it: Trump says that by eliminating environmental regulations and other rules, he can boost the U.S. oil and gas industry.
The fine print: We will use monthly data on crude oil and natural gas production from the Energy Information Administration.
The story so far: Both oil and gas production were down slightly in February compared to a year earlier, as lower prices led to reduced drilling. But there are already signs that production has begun to rebound from its 2016 lows.

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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