Incumbent presidents can define their opponents before they define themselves. Trump now has already done that, no matter who the Democrats nominate.
President Donald Trump delivered a mostly optimistic State of the Union address that signaled his desire to cooperate with Democrats in Congress on a variety of issues. His message was what you’d hope from a president heading into a re-election — pivoting in areas where he knows he’s weak and must improve to win. If this was the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign, he’s clearly setting up a contrast where he appears interested in solutions and compromise, while Democrats appear sullen, intransigent and veering too far left on economic policies and cultural issues such as abortion.
A speech for women. Many passages were aimed at a demographic with which Trump has struggled — female voters. His approval rating among women was just 32 percent in the latest CNN poll, something Trump must address if he hopes to win reelection. His point on women filling 58 percent of new jobs created in the last year was a smart attempt to tie his best issue — the economy — to one of his weak spots. His announcement of a “governmentwide initiative focused on economic empowerment for women in developing countries” will play well with people who want him to uphold the Republican Party’s traditional position of spreading American values in the world.
President Donald Trump greets lawmakers after the State of the Union address, Washington, D.C., Feb. 5, 2019. (Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images)
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Return to independent roots. Much of the early part of the speech cast Trump as separate from both parties. He said the nation needed solutions to “problems neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades.” He argued that his agenda is not owned by one party or the other, an attempt at outreach to independent voters who swung against him in 2018. The comment that “victory is not winning for our party, victory is winning for our country” was part of his attempt to set up the Democrats as partisan actors, more interested in ending his presidency than in finding solutions to problems everyday people face.
Abortion politics returns. Democrats have overreached on abortion as of late and Trump wisely took advantage of it. The new late-term abortion law passed in New York and Gov. Ralph Northam’s gruesome comments in Virginia have reopened a front in the culture wars that will work for Trump if Democratic presidential candidates follow their fringe abortion activists down this grotesque rabbit hole. Trump’s base is strongly pro-life and is heartened by his continued support of their issue.
Democrats as obstructionists. While Trump’s approval rating remains in the low 40s, Congress is in much worse shape. A strategy to run against obstructionist Democrats and paint them as roadblocks to solutions could be a way for Trump to explain why he still has more work to do and deserves four more years. Trump laid out several bipartisan achievements in the last Congress (farm bill, criminal justice reform, opioid legislation) to show America that work across the aisle can be done if both sides are willing.
Socialism the new boogeyman. No matter who wins the Democratic primary for president, Trump set the predicate — his opponent, whoever it is, will be an adherent of socialist policies and is therefore unfit to lead. Democrats will wrestle with this as young stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and known commodities like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren dominate news cycles in Congress and the campaign to come. This is a reason why incumbent presidents are hard to unseat — they have the ability to define their opponents (think Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney 2012) before they can define themselves.
Immigration is still Trump’s animating issue. The president spent a large chunk of time on immigration and the looming government funding deadline. He was smart to show that he has come down from a concrete wall to a see-through steel barrier to compromise with Democrats, but he probably should have left the caravan talk out of the final draft. The president’s winning hand on this issue is a willingness to compromise without giving up on barriers, a focus on safety and a plan to stop the drugs flowing over our southern border. Democrats don’t want to give the president a win, but they would be unwise to stand against any new barriers on the southern border.
Trump’s bread and butter: the good economy. The president’s best issue remains the nation’s strong economy, and he was smart to spend a fair amount of time on it. The latest CNN poll showed 48 percent of voters approve of the GOP tax cut, versus just 40 percent who disapprove. Democrats don’t want to admit it, but working families are about to file tax returns and see just how much they saved. Trump was smart to include it and to talk about policies that have led to higher wages and strong job growth. Trump wants to run a “peace and prosperity” campaign, and the strong economy has him well on his way.
Trump the Dove returns. The president is listening to the isolationist wing of the Republican Party more than ever, as he talks about bringing troops home and not fighting “endless wars.” Whether these policies make America safer is yet to be seen, but a sizable chunk of Americans agree that open-ended troop deployments, especially in the Middle East, are an expensive quagmire we can’t afford.
North Korea Summit, part 2. The president is clearly proud of his relationship building with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as he announced the location of their next meeting. Whether Kim actually denuclearizes is far from assured, but Trump deserves credit for trying a new approach where other presidents have failed.
Scott Jennings is a CNN contributor and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. You can follow him on Twitter: @ScottJenningsKY
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