The Trump Agenda’s Unintentional International Consequences

President Donald Trump, who preaches pro-business policies at home and more favorable terms for the United States in trade deals, may well help elect more anti-American leaders around the world and leave the United States more isolated and embattled.

We could see the first manifestation of this in Trump’s confrontational approach with Mexico. His positions on trade (particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement) and immigration, and his characterization of the people of Mexico, have boosted the prospects of presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico’s July 1 election.

López Obrador, who has talked about possibly granting amnesty to drug traffickers, is widely viewed as a nationalist, left-wing populist who favors restricting foreign investment and protecting his nation’s domestic economy.

Earlier this year, López Obrador promised to put Trump “in his place.”

In the area of energy, for example, The New York Times recently reported that López Obrador “wants to reverse policies that have tied a knot between Mexico and the United States in recent years in energy production and consumption. And he has promised to make sure that oil never falls ‘back into the hands of foreigners.’”

Polls conducted in April and May have shown López Obrador holding leads of 10 to 20 points in the multicandidate presidential contest. (Mexico does not have a runoff system, so the first-place finisher is elected, even with only a plurality of the vote.)

French flattery

Meanwhile, in France, Emmanuel Macron has faced a torrent of criticism for his obsequiousness to Trump. The French president’s poll numbers are down, as critics from both ends of the ideological spectrum have blasted Macron for allegedly humiliating himself during his meetings with the American president.

Macron, like some other foreign leaders, has tried to flatter Trump to ingratiate himself with the president — and to convince Trump to change his positions on trade, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and other crucially important issues. So far, those efforts have failed.

France is not alone in its disdain for Trump. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes and Trends annual survey shows respondents have a less favorable view of the United States than they did before Trump was re-elected, and they have less confidence in the president doing “the right thing regarding world affairs.”

The declines have been most notable in Western Europe and Japan — including in countries that have been among America’s closest allies for decades.

Pew Research polling in Latin America showed the same general trend, with a dramatic drop in the public’s view of the United States and in the public’s confidence that Trump will do the right thing.

Although Trump’s standing is down throughout Latin America, the drop is most pronounced in Mexico. Only 5 percent of respondents in Mexico in a spring 2017 survey said they had confidence that Trump would do the right thing in world affairs.

Enemies of his friends

One of the few places around the globe where Trump’s standing has improved is Israel, but that improvement masks a dangerous development.

For decades, Israeli political leaders and American advocates for Israel have sought to portray the relationship between the two countries as above partisan politics.

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives could all support the Jewish state. It was one of the few things on which most Americans, regardless of party or ideology, could agree.

But Trump’s strong support for Israel, which includes moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, carries some risk for the Jewish state.

Trump is such a polarizing figure at home that his support for Israel could actually undermine bipartisan support for the country.

In particular, weakening support for Israel among nonwhites and Hispanics in the United States has concerned Israeli officials for years, and they have been looking for ways to connect with the minority community.

But Trump’s rhetoric and actions could make that more difficult. The combination of Trump’s support for the Jewish state and his historic unpopularity among some Americans could undermine support for Israel among younger voters, progressives and minority voters, who don’t have the same connection to or affection for Israel as most Jews and Christians.

In other words, if Donald Trump supports Israel, some voters automatically cannot.

Indeed, a Pew Research survey conducted earlier this year showed a sharp drop in support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute among Democrats. While part of this change almost certainly can be traced to Israeli actions, Trump’s possible impact shouldn’t be ignored, considering the animosity that many hold toward him.

Many Republicans complained that Barack Obama “led from behind” and weakened American power around the globe. But Trump seems to be encouraging America’s critics and alienating its friends, weakening America’s standing and unleashing forces that could do additional harm in the future.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 22, 2018. 

Trump Numbers Are Up. And Down. But Really Unchanged.

New national polls show voters are more upbeat about President Donald Trump’s performance and more pessimistic about the Democrats’ chances of taking back the House. Or not.

An April 8-11 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Trump’s job approval rating at 40 percent, while 56 percent disapproved of his performance.

An April 8-11 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed almost identical numbers, with the president’s job approval at 39 percent and his disapproval at 57 percent.

But when you look below the topline numbers or start comparing survey results to earlier polls, things start to get a little more, well, complicated.

The Post-ABC survey found Trump’s job approval had improved from its January poll (when the president’s job approval stood at 36 percent), while the NBC/Journal survey showed Trump’s approval had worsened since its previous poll in March, when it stood at 43 percent.

This no doubt caused some head-scratching by news anchors and talking heads who have relatively little experience with or understanding of survey research — and who insist on focusing on every bump in the road rather than on the road itself.

Hold the horses

In fact, it’s best not to try to explain every data point.

“Margin of error” exists for a reason, and treating every survey number as if it is a perfect reflection of reality is an invitation to an emotional breakdown.

Most results from reputable national surveys show the president’s job approval in the 38 percent to 42 percent range. Try to live with that until there is a clear breakout in one direction or the other.

It’s best to approach survey results with a dose of common sense. That may make those of us seeking complete objectivity a bit uncomfortable, but it is still necessary given the increasing difficulty in getting accurate results at a time when many voters refuse to respond to public opinion surveys.

I find it difficult to believe the president’s job approval has been moving around much — or that it has improved significantly over the past few months.

Few Trump enthusiasts are defecting from him, and his opponents are as “locked in” as can be.

Yes, good news for the White House can move the president’s numbers up a couple of points for a few days, and bad news can cost him a few points for a matter of days or weeks. But public opinion always seems to return to the same 38 percent to 42 percent job approval range we have seen for many months.

A horse race?

Of course, if you want to be confused, there is always the “generic ballot.”

The NBC/Journal poll from April showed Democrats with a 7-point advantage, 47 percent to 40 percent, while the Post-ABC survey put the Democrats’ advantage at 10 points among voting-age adults but at only 4 points among registered voters.

But when you adopt a longer time frame, things suddenly get more complicated.

The Post-ABC surveys of adults from April, January and November showed Democrats with a low double-digit lead in the generic ballot. But the Democratic advantage in the generic ballot among registered voters plunged from 12 points in January to just 4 points in the latest survey.

While I’m certain you can come up with some elaborate explanation for the shift among registered voters, I wouldn’t waste the time.

It seems very unlikely that there has been a fundamental shift in sentiment among registered voters. It’s much likelier that the Post-ABC result is a statistical hiccup that doesn’t mean much.

That’s why I was surprised how The Washington Post played the results, suggesting the findings were a “signal to party leaders and strategists that they could be premature in anticipating a huge wave of victories in November.”

Maybe that 4 percent number is a signal. And maybe it isn’t.

It could simply be that the January survey was misleading or the April survey understated the Democratic advantage. Or a little of both.

If I were you, I’d wait for the next round of generic ballot tests from the major pollsters before getting too excited about the most recent Post-ABC generic ballot result.

More horsing around

Of course, if you really want to drive yourself crazy, you can consider Quinnipiac University’s generic ballot polling.

An April 6-9 Quinnipiac poll showed Democrats with a 3-point advantage, 46 percent to 43 percent. Another Quinnipiac poll conducted three weeks earlier gave them a 6-point edge.

Two weeks before that, Democrats had a 10-point advantage, and two weeks before that, Quinnipiac found them with a 15-point generic ballot lead.

That means that between mid-February and early April, a period of about seven weeks, the Democrats’ advantage in the congressional generic ballot shrunk from 15 points to 3 points.

Feel free to believe that if you want, but it strikes me as unreasonable given that the overall news flow hasn’t been favorable for Trump, and recent special elections suggest growing Democratic enthusiasm and strengths.

I have spent years watching polls, and I value them immensely. My repeated warnings about reading too much into the responses to any single question doesn’t change that.

I’d merely like to see everyone show a bit more skepticism and caution, rather than simply regurgitating the numbers and accepting them at face value.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 19, 2018.

Can a President Preaching Change Lead a Party of Incumbents?

I have long argued that on the most fundamental level, all elections are choices between continuity and change.

The “in” party needs voters to believe that things are going well — or at least improving — while the “out” party needs to sell its message of change.

On rare occasions, when things are obviously not going well, the in party acknowledges the discontent and responds that the out party is still responsible for the mess or would only make things worse. This leads to the question of how someone like Donald Trump, whose entire message is built on disrupting the status quo and bringing dramatic change, can lead his party as an incumbent.

At least during the campaign leading up to his first midterm election, a new president can argue that while he has brought change, his job isn’t yet done — in part because the opposition has blocked him from achieving everything he promised. In other words, more disruption is necessary. (This argument is much more difficult to make after four or six years in office.)

Trump, of course, has been making that claim for months, complaining about “the swamp” in Washington, Democratic “obstruction,” “arcane rules” that paralyze the Senate (such as the filibuster), the media’s hostility, and even the alleged “deep state,” which some Trump supporters insist is trying to stop the president from succeeding.

Since he entered the presidential race almost three years ago, Trump has argued that only he can jump-start the economy, successfully renegotiate trade agreements and military arrangements, get rid of Obamacare, and protect our borders and achieve immigration reform.

If he comes up short on anything, it can’t possibly be his fault. Other forces must be conspiring against him.

History repeats

To be sure, Trump is not alone in believing this.

Incumbents always look to blame someone for their failings, and they rarely look in the mirror to find the person at fault. Moreover, this president does have adversaries who are fighting him and his agenda.

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama used a genteel version of the “blame game” strategy during their first midterms, as has virtually every other sitting president who had a rocky first two years in office.

Reagan and Obama argued that their respective predecessors, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, left them with messes to clean up (stagflation in the case of Carter, and the meltdown of the financial services sector under Bush), and insisted that they had made a good start reviving the economy and strengthening America’s standing in the world.

They had stopped the bleeding, they asserted, and just needed a couple of more years to achieve their goals.

The problem for Trump is that when both Reagan and Obama tried this strategy, it failed miserably.

Republicans lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms even though the party began with a mere 192 seats, and in 2010 Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the chamber. (Two years later, when circumstances improved, both Reagan and Obama were re-elected.)

The 1982 results were particularly noteworthy since there was every reason to believe that Republicans would avoid the midterm jinx that year.

After all, Democrats held a large majority in the House and had controlled the chamber uninterrupted for thirty years. Clearly, there was no quick fix to the combination of inflation, high interest rates, growing unemployment and little economic growth that Reagan inherited, so blaming Carter and his party for the nation’s problems — and thereby minimizing GOP midterm House losses — should have been easy. But it wasn’t.

Bill Clinton’s experience also doesn’t offer much reason for optimism for the GOP. Clinton ran as a candidate of generational change in 1992, but his first midterm was a disaster for House Democrats, who lost 54 seats and the majority in the balloting. Voters apparently didn’t like the kind of change he was delivering.

Election exceptions

The other two presidents since Reagan who had to survive “first midterms,” George H.W. Bush in 1990 and George W. Bush in 2002, don’t offer much guidance to Trump. After eight years of Reagan, George H.W. Bush was the candidate of continuity when he ran for president in 1988, and his son was not a “disruptive” force 12 years later.

Moreover, George W. Bush’s first midterm occurred a little more than one year after the 9/11 attacks, which caused voters to value continuity and rally around the White House.

In November 2002, Gallup found roughly equal percentages of registered voters saying they were “satisfied” and “dissatisfied” with the direction of the country. But during the first week of March this year, only 28 percent said they were satisfied, while 68 percent were dissatisfied.

Those numbers demonstrate how different the political environment was in 2002, and how dissatisfied voters are now.

Given that, the question is: As the midterms approach, can Republicans reclaim the banner of disruption (without creating voter fatigue), or is the GOP, which controls the House, the Senate and the White House, automatically the party of continuity, even with Trump in the Oval Office and leading his party?

Right now, the answer doesn’t look like a close call, which is why Trump and the Republicans are in such deep trouble in the fight for the House.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 10, 2018.

The Democrats’ Savior

One year ago, as Donald Trump was preparing to take the oath of office, Democrats were in disarray. Supporters of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were pointing fingers at each other, the Democratic National Committee was in disgrace, and Democratic voters were demoralized.

Now, Trump has succeeded in doing something extraordinary, something neither Clinton nor House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could do — he has united and energized Democrats.

This has occurred in spite of a growing economy, a booming stock market, a shrinking unemployment rate and tax cuts intended to stimulate even more growth.

Trump’s appeal

While economic dislocations and low wage growth certainly played a role in boosting Trump’s presidential run, it was his view of America that mobilized key voters behind his anti-establishment candidacy.

Trump voters were angry about how the country has changed. They saw liberals encouraging diversity (through same-sex marriage, transgender rights and immigration) at the expense of traditional values, roles and institutions (e.g., traditional religious beliefs and organizations).

Even worse, Republicans were unable to roll back or stop the tide of change. Trump’s cultural populism was an important part of his campaign message, and it continues to underlie his appeal to older, less educated, white voters, particularly those in rural areas.

His anti-elitist message resonated with Americans who regarded diversity and political correctness as threats to their traditions and way of life.

His promise to replace “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” may seem trivial, but it encapsulated an important part of his message and allure, which essentially involved his promise to turn back the clock.

Trump’s threat

But while those themes certainly struck a chord with conservatives and older voters in 2016, they have also — for a very different reason — now energized the young, people of color and more liberal voters, who see Trump’s America as a threat rather than an ideal.

Like Trump, President Barack Obama’s great appeal was not his issue positions — though, of course, liberal Democrats agreed with him about health care, government spending and foreign policy.

Instead, it was Obama’s vision for the country — diversity, equality, fairness and bipartisan cooperation — that made him so attractive, even to nonideological voters.

While many Americans remain outraged by Trump’s judicial appointments, efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law, support for corporate tax cuts and decision to open up drilling off the nation’s coasts, his critics have been most offended by his vision for America.

Trump’s inauguration address, comments after the violence in Charlottesville,  Virginia, and insensitivity toward gays and blacks galvanized liberals, immigrants and the young, many of whom were lukewarm about Clinton’s candidacy and failed to vote during the Obama midterms in 2010 and 2014.

This new energy produced an electorate in Virginia in 2017 that looked significantly more like the national electorates of 2008 and 2012 than those of 2010 or 2016.

That is politically dangerous for the GOP, as it was in 2006, when a Democratic electoral wave swept the country.

Trump’s troubles

Trump and congressional Republicans began this election cycle with little room for error heading into the midterms. After all, Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 points in 2016 even though key Democratic demographic groups underperformed.

But since his election, Trump has made little effort, either substantively or symbolically, to reach out to voters outside his political base.

Yes, his base is loyal, but it remains dangerously small.

The trouble for Trump and his party is that last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election saw strong turnout among younger voters (ages 18-29 and 30-44) and nonwhites.

The surge was particularly strong in suburban areas, where white women with a college degree helped Democrat Ralph Northam sweep to an unexpectedly strong victory.

Trump’s voters went to the polls and supported Republican Ed Gillespie, but he was crushed by almost 9 points by a larger-than-expected Democratic turnout.

The outcome in Virginia revealed the long-term problem for Republicans in general and Trump in particular: the America of Donald Trump isn’t one that is inclusive and welcoming.

It is an America tied to cultural values and behaviors of the 1950s, not the 21st century. That has proved appealing to older white voters, evangelicals, the less educated and those living in rural America, but not so to the rest of the country.

Other elections in 2017 and most national polls have also shown greater Democratic energy and opposition to the president, even with the nation’s good economic numbers.

The Democrats don’t have Obama at the top of the ticket, but they have someone almost as good — Donald Trump.

So, while the president can (and inevitably will) brag about some of his accomplishments, perhaps his greatest accomplishment may be his success in reviving and revitalizing the Democratic Party. And for that, Democrats should thank him.

This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 10, 2018.

Comparing Trump’s Job Ratings to Obama’s

Nine months into their respective terms, President Donald Trump’s job approval rating is substantially worse than Barack Obama’s was among both partisan groups and Independents, according to Gallup polls.

Trump’s average job approval numbers for the week of October 9 stood at 79 percent among Republicans, 8 percent among Democrats and 33 percent among Independents.

Obama’s approval numbers for the week of October 12, 2009 were 84 percent among Democrats, 16 percent among Republicans and 48 percent among Independents.

Obama’s approval among members of his own party was five points higher than was Trump’s support among his party, and Obama’s support among Republicans was eight points higher than was Trump’s support among Democrats.

More importantly, Obama’s approval among Independents was a substantial 15 points better than was Trump’s job approval among those same voters.

Obviously, Trump’s job approval could move considerably between now and the November midterms, just as Obama’s did.

According to Gallup, Obama’s job approval rating for the week of October 25, 2010 was considerably worse than it had been the previous October among both Republicans and Independents.

While 83 percent of Democrats continued to approve of Obama’s performance, the president’s job approval among both Republicans and Independents fell by 7 points — to 9 percent among Republicans and 41 percent among Independents.

These numbers suggested growing problems for Obama as the midterms approached, and that is exactly what happened.

The current Trump approval numbers should raise concerns among GOP strategists about both turnout and voter behavior in 2018.

After all, if 20 percent of Republicans disapprove of the president’s performance, they are more likely to stay home next November. Conversely, Trump’s worse job numbers among Democrats could mean key demographic groups that didn’t turn out as expected in 2016 – blacks, Hispanics and younger voters – might have a greater incentive to go to the polls next year.

Trump’s job approval numbers among Independents, a crucial swing group, has the potential to be a huge problem for his party in the midterms.

Almost half of Independent voters approved of Obama’s performance nine months into his presidency, while only about one-third of Independents approved of Trump’s performance at the same point.

While many Independents are less engaged in politics and therefore more casual in their voting habits, those who do turn out next year are more likely to see the midterm election as a referendum on the direction of the country and on Trump’s performance – and therefore as an opportunity to express their displeasure with the president and his party.

Of course, Republicans will try to make 2018 another referendum on Obama and Hillary Clinton, insisting that Democrats drove the economy into a ditch and left Trump with a mountain of problems. And Trump surely will talk about all of the great progress the country has made since his election and all of the great things he has done. That’s what sitting presidents invariably do when their first midterm election approaches.

But while those arguments will resonate with his most enthusiastic supporters, they may not be greeted as favorably by voters who do not approve of the president’s performance. And that’s where the Gallup job approval numbers come into play.

The president’s approval numbers could inch up next year, improving the political climate for his party. Even if they don’t, it’s possible that his job numbers won’t presage a terrible Republican year.

Trump’s numbers have never been very good, and since the midterms are a series of individual contests rather than a single national election, the president’s weaker approval ratings don’t automatically translate into Democratic gains. For example, his approval numbers could have dropped disproportionately in states and districts he lost in 2016, limiting the impact of the change.

But Trump’s current job approval, especially compared to Obama’s, at the very least raises questions about partisan turnout levels and Independent voters’ preferences in 2018. And for the moment, the preliminary answers continue to suggest a relatively dangerous political environment for Republicans next year.