The following essay was published in The Almanac of American Politics. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Rockefeller Center or Dartmouth College.
“The President: Rhetoric and Reality” by Michael Barone
Donald J. Trump (R)
Elected 2016, term expires Jan. 2021, 1st term; b. June. 14, 1946, New York, NY; University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business (PA), B.A.; Presbyterian; married (Melania Trump); 5 children (4 from previous marriages), 8 grand-children.
Professional Career: Real estate developer & Owner, The Trump Organization, 1971-2016; Television Producer, “The Apprentice”, 2004-2015.
Every American president has been unique — and, to a greater or lesser extent, different from what was expected when he was elevated to the office. George Washington, elected unanimously, was a symbol of the new nation’s unity — and yet two philosophically and personally polarized political parties quickly emerged not just in the states and in Congress, but in the president’s own Cabinet. Abraham Lincoln, elected with the thinnest credentials, least formal education and the lowest popular vote percentage of any president before or since, would bind together a nation riven by civil war with words of unsurpassable eloquence.
Donald Trump’s presidency, in this respect if not in many others, resembles those of Washington and Lincoln. He brought to the office a curriculum vitae starkly different from that of almost any other president. He had never held (or sought) elective office nor had he served in the military; the only other president of which those things could be said was Herbert Hoover, who made a fortune as a mining engineer and investor and who won international fame supervising famine-relief in Belgium and Russia during World War I. Hoover achieved national and international fame for his efforts, comparable perhaps to the fame or notoriety Trump earned as a real estate developer/entrepreneur/ reality TV host. He did serve as a Cabinet member for Presidents Harding and Coolidge.
Nonetheless, Trump did put his opinions on policy in public view longer than Hoover. In the 1980s, he was opining on the unwisdom of free trade deals and mass immigration, and he flirted with running for president in 2000. He stepped off that escalator in the Trump Tower in June 2015 with more strengths as a political candidate than almost any established political expert reckoned. Those strengths were combined with more than one generous dollop of luck. With 16 rivals for the Republican nomination, he was able to win primaries and caucuses with pluralities despite antagonizing majorities (he failed to top 50 percent until he got to New York on April 19), and he was saved from early attacks by opponents’ hesitation to antagonize Trump enthusiasts whose support they supposed must inevitably evaporate. He ran worst among college graduates and in areas with high social connectedness (as defined by scholars Robert Putnam and Charles Murray) and best in areas with those less educated and less socially connected. Overall he won 44 percent of primary and caucus votes and clinched the nomination when he won Indiana (despite Gov. Mike Pence’s endorsement of Ted Cruz) on May 3. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s battle against Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination continued up through the last primaries in June. Clinton won the popular vote in primaries and caucuses by a less than overwhelming 55%-43% margin.
Going into the general election, Clinton led in most polls and had the advantage by just about every conventional measure. She raised and spent far more money; she had a more successful and less fraught national convention; she was supported heartily by the incumbent president, whose job approval hovered (just) above 50 percent; she was supported, though not always with enthusiasm, by just about everyone in the press. She performed better, according to media critics and polls, in all three presidential debates and in most target state polls. Democrats crowed about their blue wall — states with 242 electoral votes went Democratic in the six most recent presidential elections — and about their inevitably emerging demographic majority, as non-whites were on their way to outnumbering whites in the electorate.
Nevertheless, as became clear on election night between 9 and 10 p.m. Eastern, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president. In effect the author of The Art of the Deal made a trade. He traded away the votes of white college graduates: the exit poll showed him leading among them only 49%-45%, well short of Mitt Romney’s 56%-42% in 2012. That lowered Republican percentages in California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Georgia, but changed no electoral votes. In return, presumably in response to his unorthodox positions on immigration, trade and foreign policy, he gained votes among non-college whites, carrying them by a 67%-28% margin, significantly better than Romney’s 61%-36% among that group. Moreover, as New York Times psephologist Nate Cohn argued persuasively in June, non-college whites were a larger share of the electorate than indicated by exit polls: they outnumbered by roughly 2-1 the Hispanic and Asian voters who Democratic pundits had assumed were the key to victory — and among whom Trump’s percentages were statistically indistinguishable from Romney’s. The net result was that Trump carried 100 electoral votes that had gone for Barack Obama four years before, in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and the 2nd congressional district of Maine.
Just as Trump was not the first to be elevated to the presidency against widespread expectations, so as president he was not the first to govern contrary to what his campaign rhetoric suggested. (And, contrary to Democrats’ expectations, he was not driven from office by charges triggered by the Clinton-campaign-financed Steele memorandum.) On his signature issues of immigration, on which he had taken stands contrary to those of presidents of both parties going back to the 1980s or even 1940s, he made only limited progress going into the first months of his third year. On trade, he persuaded the presidents of Mexico and Canada to accept modest modifications (and a renaming) of the NAFTA treaty he had excoriated on the campaign trail; given their nations’ dependence on U.S. markets, they could scarcely have refused. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Hillary Clinton also promised to do, but also seemed to stop short of major changes in trade with China. On immigration, the author of The Art of the Deal failed to get agreement on a plausible bargain — legalizing DACA recipients in return for construction of a wall (or renamed barrier) — from a Republican-majority Congress and in his third year in office was trying to gain something less sweeping from a Democratic-majority House and not entirely sympathetic Republican-majority Senate. A sympathetic observer might add that Democrats failed to obtain from their congressional supermajorities in 2009 and 2010 changes in carbon reduction and immigration policies they have been saying are national necessities ever since, and many of their 2020 presidential candidates have said that the health insurance bill they did pass must be replaced now by much more drastic changes. But drastic change in policies long in place in a mostly prosperous and mostly peaceful nation is hard to achieve. It is hard to persuade people to improve on success.
Where the Trump administration has achieved more is when the president has pursued what are thought of as traditional Republican policies. The major legislative success of the 2017-18 Congress was a major tax bill, which did the work regarded as necessary by Trump and his predecessor to lower the world’s highest corporate tax, and also eliminated subsidies for public employee unions and retirees by limiting federal deductions for state and local taxes. That raised taxes on $500,000- plus earners in heavily Democratic states while lowering them on virtually everyone else. On legal issues, which include the politically sensitive issue of abortion, Trump has largely subcontracted his judicial selections to the Federalist Society, with the Republican-majority Senate confirming Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and numerous federal appeals court judges in largely partisan roll call votes.
On domestic regulation issues, Trump appointees have mostly followed conventional Republican approaches. On foreign policy, where presidents typically have the greatest leeway, he has pursued some policies that he advocated in his campaign and that differ from previous administrations — withdrawing the bulk of U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan, negotiating directly with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, withdrawing from the (non-mandatory) Paris Climate Accords. His loud and repeated insistence that NATO allies increase defense spending to agreed-on levels has produced more results than the muted diplomatic demands of previous administrations of both parties.
Trump’s Democratic opponents, and his Republican and conservative critics, have done less in the way of criticizing his ideas or advancing feasible alternatives than they have in trying to oust him from office. Their assumption seemed to be that he would be removed from office, forthwith or at least as rapidly as Richard Nixon was in his second term. Such hopes proved unrealized. Nixon resigned less than 19 months after his second inauguration; Trump, as this is written, remained in office 26 months after his inauguration, with no indication that the special counsel had any evidence of criminal collusion with the Russians, as so many of his opponents assumed. Of course, his critics continued to search for such evidence , with profound consequences for his presidency. But it also may turn out that Democrats’ pursuit of Trump diverted their psychic energy to what turned out to be a wild goose chase.
But not without some gains in the meantime. In the 2018 election, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, gaining 40 or 41 (depending on the re-run of North Carolina 9, where a Republican lead was tainted by election fraud). The 241-194 Republican House elected in 2016 became a 235-199 Democratic House elected in 2018. The House popular vote switched from 48%-47% Republican in 2016 to 53%-45% Democratic in 2018. If the critical vote switchers that elected Donald Trump in 2016 were non-college whites, the critical vote switchers that elected a solidly Democratic House in 2018 were white college graduates in high-income suburban neighborhoods. Almost every district gained by Democrats falls into that category, including seats that almost no one saw as marginal, like South Carolina 1 and Oklahoma 5. What used to be reliable Republican constituencies are now, at least temporarily, Democratic. Comparison of the 2018 House exit poll with its 2016 counterpart shows Democrats gaining 2 percentage points among non-whites, 6 percentage points among non-college whites and 9 percentage points among white college graduates; Democratic gains were especially notable among young and low-income voters. There is a case to be made for anointing, as the press seems to have done in the early months of 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York as the personification of the Democratic victory, even though she won not by defeating a Republican in November but by ousting a senior Democrat in a low-turnout primary in June.
At the same time Republicans were losing control of the House, and losing some governorships in key states like Michigan and Wisconsin as well, they were gaining a net two seats in the Senate, raising their majority from a tenuous 51-49 (effectively reduced to 50-49 during the long illness of the late John McCain) to a slightly more comfortable 53-47. This Republican success was due in part to the fact that only one-third of Senate seats are up in any election year, and those up in 2018 tended to favor Republicans — and to a greater extent than those up in 2020.
But of course, the election on which all eyes will be focused in that perhaps aptly named year will be the presidency, and whether Donald Trump — now that he seems almost certain not to be ejected Nixon-like from office — will be re-elected, as his three predecessors were, to a second term. There are signs that his chances are slim. He lost the popular vote, 48%-46%, to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and picked the Electoral College lock only after every tumbler hesitantly clicked into place. Republican losses in the House of Representatives suggest he cannot count on duplicating his 2016 narrow (49%-45%) majority among white college graduates. His job approval rating since March 2017 has stayed well below 50 percent, hovering between 37 percent (in December 2017) and 44 percent (in June and October 2017 and February 2018), while disapproval has remained above 50 percent.
Such stasis is perhaps odd, amid so much vivid (and furious) political debate; in our long period, going back to the middle 1990s, of polarized partisan parity, job approval of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush varied much more widely, and in tandem with macro events and trends. In contrast, positive economic statistics and attitudes have had minimal effect on Trump’s ratings. Most Americans seem to have settled attitudes toward him, based on his persona and policy preferences. Even his more solemn performances — his Poland speech in 2017, his second State of the Union in 2019 — or blunders — the Charlottesville response, sexual misconduct allegations — have had little visible effect on those who love or loathe him. Not since December 2017 has his job approval fallen below 40 percent.
Before counting Trump out, it may be useful to remember that at midpoint in their first terms Clinton, Bush and Obama seemed headed to defeat, and yet they became the second trio of American two-term presidents (after Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in 1801-25). And if Trump hasn’t reaped the political benefits of economic growth, he could be helped by his opposition. There was talk in early 2019 of a challenge in the Republican primaries — talk quickly discounted by polls showing near-unanimous Republican support. As for the Democrats, in early 2019 it seemed they would have an even larger field of candidates than the 17 Republicans had in 2016, with all the potential for intra-party strife. Moreover, the leftward movement of Democratic voters and Democratic politicians had already led well-known candidates to endorse measures like Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, reparations for the descendants of slaves and legalizing some ninth-month abortions.
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