OPINION — President Donald Trump has finished his news conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, having successfully navigated a visit and dinner with the Queen the day before. Unlike his last London visit, both America and Europe are seeing a different Donald Trump — a very presidential Trump, a more soft-spoken and thoughtful Trump, showing himself more than capable of playing on the world stage.
It couldn’t happen at a better time for him.
The president’s polling numbers remain stuck in the political doldrums despite what has been, for the country, a moment of relative peace and prosperity for the first time in many years. Clearly, Trump’s style of governing has rubbed enough people the wrong way to cost him the kind of broad popularity we would expect to see for a presidency with a thriving economy.
On the other hand, Republicans can take heart that the public’s view of Democrats isn’t much better. Both sides are still on topics that are more focused on their base.
The president is still talking immigration. Voters are concerned about border security rather than immigration — a narrow but important distinction — but they are even more worried about cost-of-living issues like wages and health care.
Meanwhile, Democrats are still pining for Robert Mueller as their Russia mantra morphs from collusion to obstruction to impeachment. This kind of extreme partisanship isn’t gaining them converts to the cause, nor is their strategy to deny Trump any significant legislative victories before the coming election.
Two-thirds of the way through Trump’s first term, voters haven’t changed their opinion much about either the president or the Democrats even though they put Democrats back in charge of the House.
As the Democratic presidential field steps up its personal attacks on the president, however, this European trip may turn out to be just the kind of turning point Trump and his advisers need to change the political calculus. It gives the Trump team the perfect moment to reshape their communications and scheduling strategy to push the president’s approval numbers higher by being president first and candidate second.
If there is one thing hindering more positive numbers for the president, especially on the economy, it’s the tone and tenor of the tweets that the media uses to define his presidency. While many people like that his communications come directly from him, we see in polls and focus groups that even many of the president’s most ardent supporters are uncomfortable with his penchant for tweeting, especially those that create more conflict.
I realize that asking Trump to stop tweeting is something akin to asking him to stop breathing. But now is exactly the time to make his tweets less personal and more about specific policies and what he’s gotten done.
Adopting a strategic re-election game plan based on presidential accomplishments and policies gives Trump and his team the opportunity to contrast his strong economic record with President Barack Obama’s and the hard-left economic proposals of the Democrats’ current presidential field. And it highlights another important advantage: the power of being presidential, what we’ve been seeing in London for the past few days.
This is particularly important right now, as Joe Biden’s campaign has clearly decided on employing a front-runner strategy, designed to make him seem more presidential than the rest of the less experienced Democratic field.
But my read is that they are going to take this strategy a step further. By drawing a clear contrast with the president, Democrats also hope to make Biden seem more presidential than the president himself.
Last weekend, most of the Democratic presidential contenders answered a cattle call to appear at the California Democrats’ state convention. But Biden was a no-show, sending the message that as a former vice president with a big lead in the polls, he’s not just one of the pack.
Instead, he attended an LGBTQ dinner in Ohio, a state crucial to a general election victory. In doing so, he also sent a signal of support to a key Democratic voter group with considerable influence and fundraising ability. It gave him the opportunity to stand out from his primary competitors and look presidential in a campaign setting. Smart.
Clearly, Biden is trying claim the mantle as the one candidate with the pedigree to restore “dignity” to the White House. While the president’s off-the-cuff rallies thrill those in the hall and some in the base, the audience that will determine the 2020 election, independent voters, sees only the most bombastic clips, often shown out of context. Purely presidential events send a different message.
Some would argue that we need to let Trump be Trump. That’s how he won in 2016, and you shouldn’t argue with success. But to ignore the obvious political advantages every sitting president enjoys would be a major mistake because it’s possible to do both: let Trump be himself and set a more presidential tone.
An enthusiastic rally in Pennsylvania is good politics, but so is being presidential. When Trump has dinner with the Queen, he is fulfilling his official duties. But it also provides a stark contrast with the negative image painted by a hostile media.
Attending the 75th anniversary of D-Day is an important presidential moment, but it also gives him an opportunity to re-emphasize what has been a central theme of his presidency — honoring vets and rebuilding a strong military.
Giving a nonpolitical commencement address to the Air Force Academy grads, as Trump did last week, is what presidents do and adds to their political capital as well. Deciding to stay and shake the hands of every one of the 1,000 airmen coming across the stage was vintage Trump, not something all presidents do. But it is good presidential optics, and Trump could use more of them.
Every president creates a unique presidency that reflects his or her beliefs, character, values and personality. Trump is no different in that sense, but he is different from the 44 men who preceded him. He wasn’t a creature of Washington or of politics, and for many of his supporters, that was and is his greatest strength.
Most presidents tend to grow in office. The sobering responsibilities of the presidency change them in ways small and large. But being presidential doesn’t mean giving up what got you there in the first place. In London, Trump showed he can do both.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
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