Trump should re-energize presidency with less divisive policies
Donald Trump will visit the US-Mexico border on Thursday after his first televised Oval Office speech on Tuesday, which focused on his proposed wall. This issue, and the federal government shutdown it has fostered, is only the latest bout of turbulence in what is turning out to be an unprecedented presidency, which could yet extend to 2025.
With Trump now at a potential post-midterm election pivot point, he made the case on Tuesday for why he perceives a brewing humanitarian and national security crisis on the border necessitates a wall. Yet polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans want the president to compromise, with only a minority looking for him to follow through on construction.
Despite this — and Trump’s broader, generally low job approval ratings — his chances of re-election are significant. This is not least because, since the 1930s, the party that has won the presidency has tended to hold the White House for at least two terms of office, with only one exception: The Democrats in 1980, when Jimmy Carter failed to get re-elected.
And, as Trump showed with his against-the-odds victory in November 2016, he should never be completely counted out. In the absence of any seismic fall-out from the Mueller investigation and/or a serious economic downturn, he remains most likely to be the 2020 Republican presidential candidate.
While some Democrats continue to raise the prospect of the potential impeachment of Trump, any such proceedings are a significant distance off. Yet there is no question that the probes of Mueller and Congress into the Trump team’s ties with Russia are a potentially brewing scandal that could yet become a full-blown political crisis.
Two years in, Trump still remains a political enigma in many respects. He has shown himself to be an effective — if unorthodox — campaigner, but the jury is still out on what level of governing competence he will be shown to have demonstrated as the first president since Dwight Eisenhower never before to have held elected office. To be sure, he has secured some significant wins with the approval of two Supreme Court justices, for instance, and the Republican tax cut plan that has fueled the current economic expansion. Yet, despite claims of being a master deal-maker, repeated policy setbacks and his stumbles from controversy to controversy underline how different the national political domain can be to that of running a private family conglomerate.
As Trump showed with his against-the-odds victory in November 2016, he should never be completely counted out.
The presidency provides Trump with at least two broad powers: That of setting governing themes and that of creating interactive coalitions among the public and within Congress in support of the administration’s legislative and wider program. Trump’s effectiveness in setting governing themes and building coalitions of support, which has been very limited to date, will depend on his ability to exploit two sources of power: The popular prestige of the presidential office and his leadership reputation among members of Congress and senior federal bureaucrats.
Strong, effective presidents exploit each source of power interactively — as, for example, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and Republican Ronald Reagan did in the 1930s/40s and 1980s, respectively. To make the presidency work most effectively, Trump will now have to try to rapidly show whether he knows how to do both, defying expectations that are held about him by many voters and political elites.
Indeed, since he assumed office, the White House has instead all too often appeared riven by incompetence and confusion.
Going forward, if Trump is to maximize his prospects of re-election in 2020, should he indeed be in a position to run for a second term, he needs to demonstrate he is capable of developing a much more powerful and appealing governing agenda that has more popular support. With the Democrats having won Congress, it looks likely he will now try to build this around agendas like boosting infrastructure spending, where there could well be majorities to cultivate.
Trump’s presidency has also been characterized by unprecedented levels of party polarization. According to Gallup, there has been an average 77 percentage point gap in his approval ratings between Republicans and Democrats. In this extraordinary context, Trump needs to use less polarizing rhetoric and demonstrate greater reconciliation after the long, bitter election campaign of 2016. After a long period of such rancor, the country may be more divided than at any time in living memory.
There have been only four previous occasions when a winning presidential candidate lost the popular vote, as Trump did in 2016: In 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore; in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison bested Grover Cleveland; in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes beat Samuel Tilden; and in 1824, when John Quincy Adams bested Andrew Jackson.
Taken overall, Trump cannot be counted out from a second term, despite the chaos that often engulfs his presidency. In suitably skilled hands, the office offers potential for national renewal and unity in troubled times, and this remains true today despite the massive political baggage that Trump brings. The next key test will be whether he can re-energize his administration, work more effectively with congressional colleagues, and forge a domestic policy governing agenda that can bring the country closer together, rather than driving it further apart.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics