There’s gloom in the Donald Trump re-election camp, but is it justified? People usually think a president will automatically stay for a full second term, but as we noted elsewhere, that’s not what the past half-century shows. Five presidents in a row failed to win or complete a second term: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Skip Reagan, and it happens again, to GHW Bush.
Uncharacteristically, Trump is brooding about the possibility.
The president has privately come to that grim realization in recent days, multiple people close to him told POLITICO, amid a mountain of bad polling and warnings from some of his staunchest allies that he’s on course to be a one-term president.
Trump has endured what aides describe as the worst stretch of his presidency, marred by widespread criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide racial unrest. His rally in Oklahoma last weekend, his first since March, turned out to be an embarrassment when he failed to fill the arena.
What should have been an easy interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday horrified advisers when Trump offered a rambling, non-responsive answer to a simple question about his goals for a second term. In the same appearance, the normally self-assured president offered a tacit acknowledgment that he might lose when he said that Joe Biden is “gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”
THE ACTUAL QUOTE
That interview was with one of his biggest boosters, Sean Hannity, which also showed Trump’s mental state. When given a “creampuff” question, asking what he plans to do in a second term, this was Trump’s meandering, meaningless, and mushy reply. The transcript is on Twitter:
Well, one of the things that will be really great: you know, the word “experience” is still good,” Trump said. “I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word ‘experience’ is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning. I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington I think 17 times – all of a sudden I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady, and I say, “This is great.” But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes, like you know, an idiot like Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.
SOUNDS LIKE TEDDY
For those old enough to remember, it was just like the Roger Mudd interview of Teddy Kennedy, asking why he wanted to be president, while he was trying to unseat President Jimmy Carter. A blank stare. The fact was that Teddy didn’t want to be president. He was just being pushed into running by a party that knew Carter would lose the general election.
As the cameras rolled, Mudd popped the now-famous question: Why do you want to be president? Even if he had not been a Kennedy, what followed was stunning: a hesitant, rambling and incoherent nonanswer; it seemed to go on forever without arriving anywhere. Mudd threw another softball, and Kennedy swung and missed again. On the simple question that would define him and his political destiny, Kennedy had no clue.
Even Trump’s biggest boosters, at Fox and the Capitol, are worried.
Fox News host and Trump favorite Tucker Carlson issued a blunt warning on his show this week that the president “could well lose this election.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another close Trump ally, told reporters that the president needs to make the race “more about policy and less about your personality.”
TRUMP’S ECONOMY ALWAYS OVERSTATED
Trump had hoped to glide to victory on the economy, although even before the pandemic, Forbes noted that the economy was not on as healthy a track as Obama’s.
Using the same GDP metric of consumer spending plus business investment adjusted for inventory changes, Obama’s last three years in office had growth rates of at least 2.17% and as high as 3.06%.
For Trump the high point was 2.83% in 2018 when the tax cut seems to have had the largest impact and even fell short of Obama’s 2014 and 2015 growth rates of 3.06% and 3.05%, respectively.
In 2019 the adjusted growth rate was only 1.99%. This is less than Obama’s three last years in office and less than five of his last six years.
I use the timeframe of Obama’s last three years to compare to Trump’s three years since they had similar economic environments and are not distorted by the Great Recession.
NEW RUSSIA ISSUE
It would be ridiculous to blame Trump for the current economic slump, but his marks are not great on handling the pandemic or the current unrest, and now, Trump will be facing criticism of his friendship with Vladimir Putin, now that news has hit that Putin is offering a bounty on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan, as reported in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.
A Russian spy unit paid members of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to conduct lethal attacks on U.S. troops in that country, according to a classified American intelligence assessment, people familiar with the report said.
The New York Times notes, “The disturbing intelligence — which the CIA was tasked with reviewing, and later confirmed — emerged from U.S. military interrogations in recent months.” The paper also claims that Trump was briefed on this and did nothing, although Trump disputes that.
All of this sounds like very bad news for Trump’s re-election. RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight both provide averages of national polls and show Trump at 41 percent approval. And Forbes reports on a Gallup poll, showing Trump’s rating dropping ten points since May.
There’s even concern that Trump, for whom winning is everything, might give up, claiming he has accomplished all he wanted to, and not run for re-election, even though he already has the nomination locked up. That is certainly consistent with his muddled answer about what he would do with a second term.
BUT TRUMP DOESN’T NEED POPULAR SUPPORT
What all of this overlooks is that Trump loves to fight. And he thinks he can win any battle—one way or another. More importantly, for all the hand-wringing over his 41% approval rating, that’s where he’s been since before the last election! Nothing he does or says moves that number much, one way or another. It does not take 51% to win an American election. We’re left with the most important fact:
Trump’s 41% approval rating is TEN POINTS ABOVE what he needs. In 2016, Trump won the White House with just 31% of registered voters. He has a solid, unflinching base that has said they’ll vote for him no matter what he does or says. Nobody’s talking about that.