Under the radar: Five big overlooked political stories of 2017

Image: Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence
President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other members of congress, speaks during an event on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 20, 2017 in Washington. Copyright Carolyn Kaster AP
By Mark Murray and Carrie Dann with NBC News
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Here are the five biggest overlooked political stories of Donald Trump's first year in office.

WASHINGTON — The first year of Donald Trump's presidency launched what seemed to be a thousand different political stories. The Russia probe. The policy fights over health care and taxes. The special elections. The controversial tweets. And the overall chaos in Washington.

But all of those stories buried others that would have been front and center in past administrations. Here are five of the biggest overlooked political stories of 2017:

1. Trump's big imprint on the judiciary

The president's biggest legislative win was the tax bill that passed Congress. But arguably his most far-reaching achievement in his first year in office was filling important judicial vacancies.

In total, 19 Trump judicial nominees won Senate confirmation in 2017, including one Supreme Court justice (Neil Gorsuch) and 12 appellate-court judges (the most ever for a first-year president).

By comparison, 13 judicial nominations won confirmation during Barack Obama's first year in office. (One reason for the difference was due to the vacancies that piled up during Obama's last two years in office when Republicans controlled the Senate.)

"These judges will remain on the bench long after Donald Trump leaves office," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal-leaning Alliance for Justice. "It is a story that hasn't received the attention it deserves."

"We think we're on pace here to begin to make substantial changes in the federal judiciary," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in the fall.

2. Trump's largely empty government

While Trump has been outpacing his predecessors in filling the courts, the same can't be said of staffing his own administration.

As of December 20, according to data from the non-profit Partnership for Public Service, only 262 Trump nominees to serve in his administration had won Senate confirmation — fewer than the 418 who won confirmation at this same point in time in the Obama administration or the 493 who won confirmation in George W. Bush's first year.

And it's not all the fault of the Senate, which Trump's party controls. As of December 20, Trump had nominated 489 Senate-confirmable officials — far fewere than Obama's 636 and Bush's 741 at this same point in time.

Why does this matter? "Tax reform is going to require the (Internal Revenue Service) to do a tremendous amount of work. Guess what? There's no IRS commissioner," says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. (There is an acting commissioner, however.)

"A big government cannot be run by the president himself. His job is to build the best team," Stier added.

3. A growing economy hasn't lifted Trump's job rating

Trump's unpopularity — his job-approval rating is in the 30s and low 40s, according to most polls — hasn't been an overlooked story. And neither has the state of the economy, with the unemployment rate dropping to 4.1 percent and the Dow Jones average soaring above 24,000.

But the intersection of those two stories hasn't received enough attention: A growing economy hasn't benefited Trump's overall political standing.

Indeed, the December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, believe Trump's approach has made the economy better rather than worse. But the same survey found Trump's job rating at 41 percent, Democrats leading in congressional preference by 11 points and a majority of Americans — 52 percent — saying they'd vote for a generic Democrat over Trump in 2020.

"While a good economy always helps the party in power, it's unusual the president is not getting the traditional lift most presidents receive when the economy is this good," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who co-conducts the NBC/WSJ poll.

4. Democratic divisions

While Trump has dominated the political news, the Democratic wounds from the 2016 primaries still haven't completely healed.

In 2017, there was the competitive race for Democratic National Committee chair, which was viewed (fairly or not) as a proxy fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. There was Clinton's criticism of Sanders in her post-election book. And there was former interim DNC chair Donna Brazile's book, which alleged the Clinton campaign took over control of the DNC earlier than was understood.

Although Democrats appear to be unified heading into the 2018 midterms — being the opposition party can temporarily paper over divisions — they still have important questions to answer heading into the next presidential election.

Do they run against Wall Street? Or do they bring everyone to the table? Does the party build on Obamacare? Or does it shoot for a single-payer system instead? And is it a big-tent party with an emphasis on identity politics? Or should class and the economy be the party's core?

Those questions won't be answered until Democrats have their presidential nominee in 2020, says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who served on Clinton's 2016 campaign.

"When you're the party out power, there is an opportunity to engage the grassroots and debate the future," he said. "The resolution comes when you…choose a nominee."

5. Democrats' overperformance in the 2017 elections

Finally, as the 2018 midterms approach, there's another story this year that probably didn't get the attention it deserves: Democratic candidates across the country are performing better than they did in previous contests.

This year featured seven major contests — four of which Republicans carried and three of which Democrats won.

And in almost every case — from Virginia and Kansas, to Alabama and South Carolina — Democrats overperformed their margin from that race's prior contest, as well as from the result of the 2016 presidential election in that area.

These outcomes in 2017 foreshadow big midterm wins for the Democrats next year, says David Wasserman, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Democrats are consistently over-performing the partisan lean of states and districts by five to eight points," Wasserman said. "That suggests an enthusiasm gap that puts the GOPs House majority in peril."

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