Trump owes his current rebound to his State of the Union speech, not ending the shutdown. This is bad news for Democrats who mistakenly believe he will be easy to beat in 2020. Had it been the shutdown, Democrats would have a great deal of control over Trump’s fate. Instead, his speech’s aftermath indicates Democrats are Trump’s more likely foil, than to foil Trump.
Today’s predominant narrative states the partial federal government shutdown severely hurt President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE, while his State of the Union speech was just a blip. Reality is closer to the reverse.
On Feb. 18, Rasmussen polling showed Trump with a slim 50/49 percent approval/disapproval rating. Notably, this was his seventh straight positive approval reading. Not since Feb. 20, 2017 have so many occurred.
On Feb. 8, Trump had finally broken a two-month losing streak of negative ratings that had begun on Dec. 7. The government shutdown started during that span — on Dec. 22, with Trump’s rating at 49/50. When the shutdown ended on Jan. 24, Trump’s rating was 44/54.
On Feb. 4, the day before the State of the Union speech, his rating was also 45/54. On the third day following the speech, Trump’s rating went positive. He has been so ever since.
These numbers’ context is crucial. Admittedly, these are small shifts. However, they are important to Trump.
Trump is divisive to a large segment of America. He is not likely to have big positive margins. However, he does not necessarily need them. He won the presidency with 46.1 percent of the popular vote — solidly beating an opponent in the electoral vote who had 48.2 percent. His approval rating is above both levels now. And for context: Since 1976, eight of 11 presidents have won with less than 51 percent of the popular vote.
That the State of the Union speech, rather than ending the government shutdown, got him to this point is equally important.
The speech was a very good one. It highlights that Trump has grown in office, even as he has not grown to be less divisive to many. The two do not have to align. Even those feeling he has not grown must admit the obvious: When he seeks reelection in two years, he will still be president and, for many Americans outside his base, that will make him presidential.
As president, he will be largely able to frame the debate, just as during the speech. To his opponents, Trump framing the debate is considered a godsend, because they consider him doing so by his mistakes. The speech reminds that Trump also has a potent offensive weapon in this ability.
The speech was a litany of positive accomplishments. Trump is likely to have a large selection in two years too. The economy comes first to mind, but it will not stop there — trade, international relations, national security, all will exist.
The speech also shows that as powerful as Trump’s assets will be, his opponents’ liabilities will be even greater. During the speech, congressional Democrats largely sat during many obvious applause-lines. Late-term abortion, immigration, Israel, energy production — all were places where Democrats could not support the president without alienating their own important constituencies.
The Democratic nominee will face the same dilemma, only worse. Instead of being noticeably absent, despite being present, they will be captured with Trump on debate stages. Responsibility will not be diffused throughout a chamber — where cameras only occasionally capture the whole — but concentrated on a single individual, every nuance of which will be seen.
That individual will not just sit awkwardly at the difficult moments, that individual will more awkwardly have to explain them. They will have to articulate what for most Americans will be inexplicable. Do you support the Green New Deal?
The picture alone will be worth a thousand words, but their nominee will still have to supply a millennium’s worth. And those thousand will be sliced and sifted just as carefully as the nominee will have had to parse them — the quotes being combed as closely by foes and “friends” alike.
Trump will be able to stage events at will and get major coverage for them. The speech was the most watched “traditional” presidential address in a decade. Do not casually dismiss this power. Just ask Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE’s people how influential these were when Trump barnstormed through swing states without being president three years ago.
Trump is in a rebound. It is due to things he can control — not just to reopening the government, and could later deny. Certainly, there will be downswings ahead, but these are getting shallower and Trump has an ability, which will only get stronger as the fight becomes one-on-one, to regroup. Instead of exploiting Trump’s weaknesses, Democrats had better first look to their own. The president can use these as wedges to split them, but more importantly, to split them from America’s swing voters.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.