If midterms go badly, Trump’s eye may turn overseas
Donald Trump signed into law on Friday an $854 billion funding bill that averted a government shutdown before November’s crucial congressional elections. With Democrats hoping to make major gains in the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate too, Trump may be staring into a major midterm backlash.
While this would by no means be the end of Trump’s presidency, it may well stymie his domestic agenda in the two years to come. Nevertheless, the president, who gives every indication that he will stand again in 2020, may face an easier path to re-election running against a hostile Democratic Congress, much as Barack Obama did in 2012 against a Republican House after that chamber flipped control in 2010.
In the current febrile US political climate, there could still be further significant swings in sentiment in the weeks ahead, but history is on the side of Democrats.
Since 1900, there have been only three mid-term elections — 1934, 1998, and 2002 — in which the president’s party did not lose House seats. Moreover, in the postwar era, there has been an average net loss of 26 House seats for the president’s party (this year Democrats need to win 23 seats to take control of the chamber).
In the Senate, however, the pathway to a Democratic takeover is tougher going. Even though Republicans have only a slender majority, 51-49, Democrats are defending 26 seats, compared with 9 for the Republicans. Moreover, 10 of the Democrat-held seats are in states that Trump won two years ago.
Given the prospect of potentially sweeping gains for Democrats, Trump is wise to be planning to head overseas after the elections.
Given the prospect of potentially sweeping gains for Democrats, Trump is wise to be planning to head overseas after the elections. He will attend centenary events in France on Nov. 11 for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and the G-20 summit in Argentina later that month as part of a wider tour of South America.
Trump is far from alone in undertaking similarly timed foreign travel. For instance, Obama traveled to India, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and Portugal in November 2010 after bruising losses for Democrats. George W. Bush went on a foreign tour in November 2006 — to Russia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Estonia, Latvia, and Jordan — after Republicans lost control of the House and Senate.
What remains unclear, if Democrats do make striking gains, is whether Trump will increasingly turn his attention to foreign policy in 2019 and 2020. Already, this autumn and winter, he is planning a potential second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; seeking to conclude NAFTA trade re-negotiations with Mexico and possibly Canada too; not to mention manage the ongoing trade spat with China.
It has been the case for several recent presidents, from the vantage point of domestic policy, that their first two years are the most productive. During this initial period in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting core priorities (as Trump did, for instance, with his tax cut package).
To be sure, Trump may achieve further domestic policy success over the next two years. However, several other recent presidents have found it more difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures after their initial phase in office.
In part, this is because numerous presidents in the postwar era have held a weaker position in Congress over time. For instance, both Clinton in 1994 and Obama in 2010 saw — two years into their presidencies — striking gains by the Republicans, who picked up the House from Democrats in both these midterm ballots, and also the Senate in 1994.
A second potential reason for greater stress on foreign policy by Trump in the next two years could be his desire to establish a legacy in the event that he fails to be re-elected in 2020, unexpectedly decides not to seek a second term, or is impeached. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build.
For instance, Richard Nixon scored a string of foreign policy successes in his second two years of office from 1971 to 1973. This included his landmark meeting with Chairman Mao in China in February 1972 before signing two nuclear agreements with Moscow to limit nuclear weapons. More recently, Bush sought to spread his self-proclaimed freedom agenda after the 2001 terrorist attacks, not least with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of this underlines the significant chance that, if Democrats win big in November, Trump will increasingly turn to the world stage in advance of 2020. This would be especially likely if he perceives significant potential foreign-policy opportunities on the horizon, including de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier through the prize of verifiable and comprehensive Korean denuclearization.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.