If you go by the numbers, President Trump is in a stronger position to win reelection than Bill Clinton was at the same point in his presidency. Trump’s job approval is 46 percent in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. A Gallup poll has him with 43 percent but his handling of the economy in the mid-50s.
These are the first of what will be more wake-up calls for Democrats that Trump could get reelected. A president who doesn’t top 46 percent job approval would normally be considered a very weak contender. Democrats are haunted by the fact that Trump cobbled together an Electoral College win in 2016 after losing the popular vote by three million votes.
Democrats are in a much better position to win the White House in 2020 than Trump is to win reelection. Charlie Cook of the non-partisan Cook Report breaks down the electorate this way: 35 percent are Trump no matter what; 45 percent are Democrats who oppose Trump no matter what; and 20 percent roughly are up for grabs.
Trump has to win two out of three in that 20 percent; Democrats need to persuade one out of three, a much easier task, but not a slam dunk.
If Trump were to focus on those voters, it would help if he nailed a trade deal with China, which would be a significant achievement. If he could work out something with Kim Jong Un that could curb North Korea’s nuclear program, that would help too. And if he can continue to convince voters that his handling of the remnants of war in Afghanistan and Syria is keeping the United States safer, that would be a plus.
Roy Gutman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered the war in Syria and is writing a book on the rise of ISIS, quotes a source describing the difference between President Obama’s policy in the region and Trump’s this way: Obama had a policy but no balls; Trump has balls but no policy.
That’s a crass way of describing Trump’s approach to just about everything.
To win reelection in 1996, Clinton famously “triangulated,” striking a deal with the Republican-led Congress for welfare reform that boosted his numbers. To improve his position the way Clinton did, Trump would have to strike a deal on infrastructure or immigration and that’s not likely with the Democrats in charge of the House.
“There’s no Newt Gingrich on the Democratic side to cut deals with, and be seduced,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Since it’s unlikely Trump can accomplish anything significant with the Democrats, the only area he should have some control over is his personal behavior, and that’s questionable. In focus groups, even Trump voters find much of the president’s behavior appalling. They would like him to tweet less, or tweet differently, and they would like him to show some humanity, even to his own wife and youngest son.
A lot of the negatives about Trump “is the way he governs, which isn’t going to change, and the way he operates, which isn’t going to change,” says Amy Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.
“His biggest asset isn’t who Trump is, it’s who the Democrat is,” she told the Daily Beast.
Trump is aggressively branding Democrats as radical socialists, a label designed to turn off Independents. Trump carried Independents in 2016. They didn’t like either candidate, says Walter, so they decided “to go with the devil I don’t know.”
Real Clear Politics found that a majority of those who told exit pollsters they disliked both candidates ended up voting for Trump.
What kind of president he would be was a theoretical question then, but now Independents know what his presidency is like, says Walter. Independents breaking for Democrats in the 2018 midterms contributed to Republicans losing by 9 percentage points across the country, an electoral defeat that was a referendum on Trump, turning over control of the House and its investigatory powers to the Democrats.
“Presumably he has lost votes from Clinton haters who took a chance on him,” says Bennett, who doesn’t think there’s much Trump can do proactively and realistically to improve his position. A presidential election is a choice between two people, and the voters know who they’re voting for and against, “which is why Democrats could make a serious mistake to believe Trump has a ceiling in the 40s and anyone they nominate would win.”
That is the cautionary note for Democrats. “He has to absolutely make this a choice,” says Walter. “We’ve seen this before, the people are different, the time is different,” but the strategy worked for Clinton.
Like Trump, Clinton had weak numbers but good economic times and no hot war. He quickly defined the Republican nominee, Senate leader Bob Dole, as a Washington insider and clone of Gingrich who would slash popular social programs like Medicare and Social Security. Dole’s age, 73 at the time, was also an issue.
Trump’s goal is to do what he can to provoke Democrats into nominating a candidate who can fit into the socialist frame that he can deride and dismiss. We’ve seen this before, says Walter, pointing to 1972 when the Democrats went with their furthermost left candidate, George McGovern, who lost in a landslide to President Nixon, and 1992, when Democrats found a candidate in Bill Clinton who fit the moment, and who won back the White House for Democrats after 12 years in the wilderness.
As to Trump, “we’re left waiting to see if the Democrats can put up somebody who can beat him,” says Bennett.
If the nominee fits Trump’s socialist frame, he or she can take a page from FDR, the Democrat who beat back attacks on his New Deal programs and wore criticism as a badge of honor.
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” he wrote in 1933. “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” `