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The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection

The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection
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Democrats are, once again, measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.

They and their media partners are pretty cocksure that Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability MORE will defeat President Trump in November. They are reading the polls, assessing the mood of the country and telling each other that Trump has alienated… well, pretty much everybody.

Does this sound familiar? In 2016, Democrats were also certain of victory, and no one was more positive than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE. Her staffers were so confident, reported the New York Times, that they popped champagne bottles early on Election Day and began their celebrations in earnest. Oops.

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Trump fans are hoping for a replay of the 2016 shocker, with the president running up an Electoral College win in spite of worrisome polls. They could prove correct for this reason: the enormous power of incumbency, a force that today’s pundits tend to minimize. A power that, according to Don Luskin of Trend Macrolytics, grants an incumbent president 81 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win reelection.

The death of Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgFauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Biden owes us an answer on court-packing MORE has certainly delivered to the president the granddaddy of all incumbency opportunities. Filling a Supreme Court seat is one of the most powerful acts undertaken by American presidents; Trump has promised to nominate a candidate, igniting a political firestorm and, predictably, rallying his base. 

But the passing of Ginsburg is not the only recent event that highlights the power of the Oval Office.

Consider the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. The optics and the reality of that momentous breakthrough was a powerful asset to President Trump. The achievement makes a mockery of the 50 Republican foreign policy experts who in 2016 claimed Trump would “put at risk our country’s national security and well-being” and proves that the president is capable of creative and constructive diplomacy.

There are also a handful of more modest acts in recent days that could prove just as fruitful to the president’s prospects.

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For example, the Trump administration recently reversed gears and rejected requests from refiners to lower their purchases of ethanol and biodiesel. The change was cheered by Iowa farmers and lawmakers who had petitioned the president to stop exempting small refiners from complying with federal ethanol mandates.   

Polling shows the president effectively tied with Biden in Iowa, a state that went for Trump by 9 points in 2016. Not only is the president’s position shakier than in the past, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Supreme Court battle turns into 2020 proxy war Trump hits road in scramble to shore up support from 2016 MORE is struggling to keep her seat. An Ernst victory is considered key to the GOP keeping control of the Senate.

In short, Iowa is important. A handout to farmers should help both Trump and Ernst.

Similarly, Trump recently signed an executive order meant to significantly lower the prices Medicare pays for drugs. The new order will require drug companies to sell their products to Medicare at the same price they charge other countries. The change could cost pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars and ultimately cut the prices seniors pay for medicines.

Putting the order to work could take months or years; Medicare is notoriously slow to implement policy changes. Nonetheless, Trump will hail the new approach to bolster his support from seniors, which in recent months has been slipping and which is especially important in swing-state Florida. He describes his plan as “putting America first”; sparring with drug makers over the high cost of medicines is a sure political winner.

President Trump is also using his office to curry favor with Puerto Ricans. In recent days, the White House announced it will allocate $13 billion in additional aid to Puerto Rico to help its ongoing recovery from 2017's Hurricane Maria. The governor of that beleaguered island tweeted her thanks to the president for the much-needed funds; with thousands of Puerto Ricans having moved to Florida in the aftermath of Maria, the outreach could help Trump in the contested state.

And, to please his conservative base, Trump announced at the recent (and first) White House Conference on American History an executive order setting up a “national commission to promote patriotic education.” He is calling it the “1776 Commission” after criticizing the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Nothing gets conservatives’ dander up more than the liberal dogma being dished out in taxpayer-funded schools and colleges. They will applaud the president’s initiative to provide some balance.

There is nothing underhanded about President Trump’s targeted last-ditch policymaking. Using the power of the Oval Office is a time-honored tradition.

In 2012, President Obama was losing ground with Hispanic voters who were a critical element of his winning coalition in 2008. Hispanics were sore that Obama had done nothing on immigration — and especially nothing to resolve the plight of those living in the country illegally. To bolster his standing with Latinos, Obama rolled out his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals the summer before his reelection, which granted protection from deportation to certain young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally. It was a controversial act, but it restored his popularity with Hispanics, 71 percent of whom voted for the incumbent, up from 67 percent in 2008.   

Luskin’s TrendMacrolytics election model predicted Trump’s victory in 2016, and, applied retroactively, has correctly called every election since 1952. The purely quantitative model uses no polling data but instead relies on political and economic variables.   

Commenting on the 1.4 million jobs gained in August, Luskin wrote, “This datapoint gives Trump 53 additional electoral college votes in our quantitative election model, which now forecasts he will win by a margin of 355.” 

So, incumbency is not the only variable that could reelect Trump. The trend of GDP, income growth and tax levels weigh even more heavily. But if Trump continues to address the nation’s and voters’ problems, his Oval Office authority will give him a boost.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.