Trump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign
President Trump is facing a host of difficult decisions on foreign and domestic policy as the presidential campaign season gears up.
The administration is confronting a new crisis with Saudi Arabia and Iran, approaching new trade talks with China that will be crucial to the global economy, and faces pressure to come forward with a proposal on gun violence following a string of mass shootings.
Trump also must find someone to replace John Bolton, the national security adviser he ousted just last week. And then there’s the matter of signing a government funding bill before Oct. 1 to prevent a new shutdown.
The difficult questions underscore the balance the president will need to strike between focusing on his reelection and handling a host of hot-button issues that come with his White House job.
It’s a challenge that previous incumbent presidents have faced as campaign season heats up but one that is new territory for Trump, who has already been crisscrossing the country to liven up support for his reelection.
“Running for president is a full-time job,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who was a top operative on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“Incumbent presidents have a lot of advantages, but the one big disadvantage is that they can be pulled off the campaign trail at any moment.”
The last week has been a particularly busy one at the White House. Trump has dealt with the fallout from Hurricane Dorian, canceled a planned meeting with the Taliban on Afghanistan peace talks at Camp David, announced plans to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, ousted his national security adviser, held meetings with senators on potential gun-law reforms, and commemorated the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Trump has also traveled for campaign rallies in North Carolina and New Mexico, and left Monday night for a fundraising swing through California amid lingering questions about how his administration would respond to the attack on two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which Iran is suspected of carrying out.
Trump initially hinted at potential military action in response to the attacks — claiming the United States was “locked and loaded” — but seemed to soften his tone Monday, saying he didn’t want war with Iran and would review options once U.S. officials definitively proved the culprit of the attack.
“Well, we have a lot of options, but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this. We’re dealing with Saudi Arabia. We’re dealing with the crown prince [of Saudi Arabia] and so many other of your neighbors, and we’re all talking about it together. We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday.
Trump is slated to return to Washington on Wednesday and will face pressure to lay out his administration’s stance on the attack. Meanwhile, he has dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to discuss the attack, and Vice President Pence briefed senators on the developments Tuesday.
The surprise attack was an example of a broader test that incumbent presidents face in juggling pressing, official White House duties while also pursuing reelection.
“Every problem of the world comes to the desk of the American president,” said Anita McBride, who served as an assistant to George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
“Natural disasters, tragedies, whatever it might be, you are expected to have a response — not necessarily always take action on everything, but always a response.”
“During an election period, those problems or the unpredictable nature of the office will never go away. You become conditioned to it and you have an apparatus around you that makes you able to do both,” McBride continued.
Trump has pledged to choose a replacement for Bolton this week, having singled out five names he is considering for the role while speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, his administration is also dealing with Congress on potential gun legislation and heaping pressure on House Democrats to pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade.
Those familiar with Trump’s work on the campaign trail say he’ll be able to balance official duties and campaigning, noting he’ll be able to delegate many issues to his White House team.
“He has the energy to handle all of his responsibilities,” said former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg. “I don’t think it will be a challenge for him because he will delegate properly.”
But, Conant observed, Trump could face more difficulty because of recent departures of top officials in his administration. He pointed specifically to Bolton’s absence.
“The constant changes in personnel this close to an election are really unusual,” Conant said.
Trump has also faced headwinds to deliver on some of his signature campaign promises — including building a wall at the U.S. southern border with Mexico and bringing American troops home from Afghanistan — while contending with increasing concerns about the U.S. economy.
Operatives note that Trump started holding campaign rallies relatively early, formally kicking off his reelection campaign at a Florida rally in June.
Trump has used the venues to take credit for the low unemployment numbers, project confidence on his trade war with China, and double down on his efforts to build the wall, while taking expected jabs at the media and increasingly attacking his Democratic opponents.
“I think the campaigning, the rallies, getting outside of Washington, it appears every time he does that it gives him an added boost of energy that fuels him,” said McBride.
Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesman who is now a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, predicted Trump will, like other presidents, increasingly focus on his reelection as the field on the other side narrows, particularly as Democrats in Congress grow wary of working with him on legislative priorities so close to the election.
“You reach a certain tipping point in the presidency when the reelection becomes much more of a focus and it becomes much harder to pass legislation and focus on the domestic day-to-day issues,” LaBolt said.
“The other side shies away from doing anything that would be perceived as giving you a win.”
LaBolt also noted that members of the Democratic field — which includes several senators and members of Congress, a former vice president and a city mayor — don’t have near the responsibilities that Trump does as commander in chief.
“Then it is an all-in campaign and a lot of them don’t have the same level of demand in their day job so they can be out on the trail every single day,” LaBolt said.