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2017: At the Dawn of the Age of Trump

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

It’s already clear that the very strange political year of 2016 is bleeding over into the New Year. How could it be otherwise? President-elect Donald Trump, loved and hated by about equal numbers of Americans, continues to ignore or break with convention in a wide variety of areas. Just as the normal rules didn’t apply to him in the campaign, they may not apply to him in office either.

Let’s review what we’ve got as we head toward Inauguration Day:

  • Trump won the election with narrow but convincing margins in six states won by Barack Obama twice (Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, along with bigger victories in Iowa and Ohio). This kind of swing-state sweep cannot be called a fluke or an aberration, especially given Hillary Clinton’s towering financial and organizational advantages.
  • At the same time, Trump lost the popular vote by close to 2.9 million, the largest number ever by a candidate who captured the all-important Electoral College. Losing nationally by 2.1 percentage points will hinder Trump in various ways during his term; at the least, it provides a stinging rebuke for Trump’s opponents whenever he takes unpopular actions. (While the popular vote is not how the United States picks presidents, the Trump camp’s argument that they could easily have generated the needed votes in non-swing states if they had wanted is a weak one. The Clinton campaign could have produced millions more votes, too, had there been some payoff for doing so.)
  • While almost nothing Trump says or does reduces the fervency of his millions of core backers, the president-elect’s controversial tweets and braggadocio have won him few new supporters. He has not reached out to reunify a badly divided country in any sustained way. As a result, he has the lowest ratings of any modern president-elect during the transition period. Essentially, he is about at the 46% level he garnered on Election Day, while other recent presidents-elect have soared in the run-up to their swearing-in. For instance, Gallup found in mid-December that just 48% of Americans approve of how Trump is handling his presidential transition, compared to 75% for Barack Obama, 65% for George W. Bush, and 67% for Bill Clinton.
  • Meanwhile, the outgoing president has sustained and even expanded his approval, which now stands at around 55% in the polling averages. In RealClearPoliticsaverage, Obama is at about the same place as he was in December 2012 just after winning reelection, and in HuffPost Pollster’s aggregate his approval has not reached such heights since his initial honeymoon period in early 2009. The remarkable thing is that Obama was unable to transfer enough of this popularity to Clinton, his chosen successor, despite the dramatic improvement in the devastated economy he inherited in January 2009. Consider the 1988 election as a comparison: According to Gallup, Ronald Reagan had a 51% approval rating in late October 1988, but the incumbent was a key factor — maybe the key factor — in Vice President George H.W. Bush’s 53%-46% victory over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

So it would appear that Obama is up and Trump is down, the outgoing president triumphant and the incoming president facing a difficult future. And this picture is thoroughly misleading.

Barack Obama’s legacy, at least a great deal of it, was in effect wiped out with the election of a GOP president and Congress. Over the next weeks, months, and years, Obama’s executive orders on a wide variety of subjects will be revoked, his signature Obamacare program may be dismantled substantially, and many other domestic regulations and international initiatives from the Obama Administration will be reversed or neutralized.

Obama and his team are hoping for less change than Trump has advertised, but they may be fooling themselves. For eight years the GOP leadership has been carefully planning for the day when total control of the federal government would enable them to undo the Obama agenda, and they are well on their way to achieving a great deal of this quickly.

It is true that Democrats theoretically have enough votes in the Senate — 48 when including the two independents who caucus with them — to block measures that require 60 votes. However, there are more filibuster-proof items than ever due to rule changes made by the Democrats in 2013 when they still controlled the upper chamber, meaning that Cabinet-level appointees and most federal judicial nominees (but not for the Supreme Court) only need 51 votes to be confirmed. In addition, 10 Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2018 in states carried by Trump, and some of the most endangered ones cannot be counted on to vote with their caucus in all circumstances. Maybe a few Republicans will defect in the other direction from time to time, as early declarations about the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election indicate.

The Democratic Party, which fully expected to control the White House and the Senate going forward, is still in shock from the stunning November outcome — and in its worst governing position nationally and in the states in modern times. You have to reach back to the 1920s to find a comparable period of Democratic impotence.

As we have pointed out many times, President Obama’s tenure has been a disaster for his party at other levels. Over his two terms, Democrats have set the post-World War II record for losses by the White House party. Taking governorships, state legislators, and members of the U.S. House and Senate together, Democrats have suffered a net loss of over 1,000 posts from Obama’s initial victory in 2008 to the loss of Hillary Clinton under his watch. The Democratic bench is almost empty in many critical states, another reason why political analysts have a hard time coming up with an expansive list of potential presidential nominees for 2020. Given the potential for GOP gains in the Senate come 2018, Democratic hopes for fresh blood may depend heavily on their performance in big-state gubernatorial elections at the midterm.

All 435 House seats will also be contested in 22 months, but despite the Republicans’ substantial 241-194 majority in the new Congress, Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik found that only 23 House Republicans occupy seats won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race (it is possible that this number will change slightly but not substantially). Compare that to the 2010 midterm, when Democrats were defending 48 seats won by John McCain in 2008 — major Democratic overexposure that significantly contributed to the GOP’s massive 63-seat net gain. Democrats also hold 12 districts won by Trump in 2016, including a few he won by double digits. Republicans may mount credible challenges in many of these seats. Simply put, the Republicans do not appear to be all that overextended in the House at the starting gate of the 2018 campaign, although much will depend on the national mood heading into the midterm.

It has been said a million times that “elections have consequences,” and this truism applies even to very close elections for the White House when the popular-vote winner is vanquished. George W. Bush had an eventful two-term presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000. And everything we’ve seen so far suggests that Donald Trump will engineer a term full of drama and significance, whether the next four (or eight) years’ substance is your dream or your nightmare.

If you doubt it, think back over the Obama-to-Trump transition. While Obama and Trump have been mostly gracious to one another (with prominent exceptions), the two presidents have been akin to dueling suns in the sky. For the most part, this is unprecedented, and the “one president at a time” convention has been shattered. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt sharply disagreed during their 1932-1933 transition, but the differences were not played out in the headlines. In other party turnovers in the past hundred years-plus, disputes were muted in the interregnum, with the incoming president deferring to the outgoing chief on policy while the president-elect concentrated on picking a Cabinet and making quiet preparations to govern. This description applies in large part to the transitions between Eisenhower-JFK (1960), LBJ-Nixon (1968), Ford-Carter (1976), Carter-Reagan (1980), Bush 41-Clinton (1992), Clinton-Bush 43 (2000), and Bush 43-Obama (2008).

Not so in 2016-2017, as Trump tweeted and telephoned his way through delicate matters of all varieties. In response, Obama was often passive, perhaps believing (as mentioned earlier) that by minimizing conflict he could keep communication lines open and preserve some measure of influence on the future of his programs.

In just a couple of weeks, the old sun will be completely eclipsed by the new one. Democrats will be essentially on their own, in a greatly diminished role. Their future will depend on President Trump’s performance, and no one really knows what will happen. It’s easy to spin scenarios whereby Trump becomes popular and successful, and equally easy to see how and why he might crash and burn. The point is that Democrats have no representative in the cockpit of the plane; on most days in most ways, they are now merely passengers on a long flight whose direction and destination are determined solely by the Republicans at the controls.

Whatever else the Trump quadrennium may turn out to be, it is unlikely to be boring. (Now there’s an understatement!) Millions of Americans are living in ecstatic anticipation, while millions of others are experiencing a dreadful foreboding. There’s only one thing we know for sure with the coming of this unique presidency and its peripatetic Oval Office occupant: There will be almost no quiet days.

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