Donald Trump made his second state-of-the-union speech to Congress on Tuesday. In what is turning out to be an unprecedented presidency which could yet extend to 2025, the recent US partial federal government shutdown is only the latest bout of turbulence in Washington.
With another such shutdown possible this month, President Trump is now at a potential post-midterm election pivot point as he plays high-stakes political poker over his proposed Mexican wall. This is especially so as polls indicate that only a minority of the US populace want him to construct the proposed border perimeter. Despite this, and Trump’s broader, generally low job approval ratings since 2017, his chances of re-election are still significant. This is not least because the party which wins the presidency has since the 1930s held the White House for at least two terms of office with only one exception: the Democrats in 1976 when Jimmy Carter failed to get re-elected in 1980.
As Trump showed with his against-the-odds victory in November 2016 that he should never be completely counted out. And, in the absence of seismic fallout 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 potential impeachment of the president, any such proceedings are a significant distance off. However, there is no question that the probes of Mueller and Congress into the Trump team’s ties with Russia are a potentially brewing scandal which 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 ultimately demonstrate 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 which has fuelled 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 privately-held family conglomerate.
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 programme. Trump’s effectiveness in setting governing themes and building coalitions of support, which has been very limited to date, will depend going forward upon 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 show rapidly 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 maximise 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 which has more popular support. With the Democrats having won the House of Representatives, it looks likely he will now — try — to build this around agendas like boosting infrastructure spending.
Disputed political legitimacy
Trump’s presidency has also been characterised by unprecedented levels of party polarisation. According to Gallup, there has been an average 77 percentage point gap in his approval ratings between Republicans and Democrats in his first two years of office.
In this extraordinary context, Trump needs to use less polarising rhetoric, and demonstrate greater reconciliation after the bitter election campaign in 2016. After a long period of such rancour, the country may be more divided than in living memory, and he has disputed political legitimacy.
Indeed, 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 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 at troubled times, and this remains true today despite the massive political baggage that he brings. His key next test will be whether he can re-energise 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 as what’s happening now.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.