White House

Trump’s double backtrack ‘probably won’t matter very much’

Teflon president not likely to pay any political price for health care, border retreats

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., John Thune, R-S. Dak., Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., look on at the Capitol on Jan. 9. His recent moves have irked his own party. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Donald Trump irked even his fellow Republicans last week with his health care and border closure pushes, only to back off both, capping one of the most turbulent weeks of his chaotic presidency. But it’s unlikely to hinder his re-election fight.

Eager to hit the campaign trail with a reprise of many of the same themes that fueled his 2016 bid, Trump caught his party off guard by trying once again to repeal and replace the entire Obama-era health care law, before delaying any vote until after Election Day 2020. At the same time, he threatened for days to shutter ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, before replacing that threat with one to first slap tariffs on Mexican-made automobiles.

Experts say they can’t recall a week in modern times quite like it, where a sitting president floated two major policy proposals only to drop them both in a matter of days. But when it comes to Trump’s political future, they also doubt it will matter very much.

William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, noted the dramatics from the Oval Office are “constant.” But “the odd thing is it probably won’t matter very much,” he added with a chuckle.

“One of the main things that the Trump presidency has inadvertently demonstrated is the range of statements that presidents can make and the actions they can take is considerably wider than we once thought,” said Galston, now with the Brookings Institution. “And if you have a base of popular support, the fact that you’re embarrassing yourself with the political class is neither here nor there. In fact, the net is it may even be a major positive.”

[‘Remain in Mexico’ policy for migrants creating ambiguity, fear]

Trump has just such a base of conservative supporters, and his constant circling back to immigration and health care reflects the issues most important to them.

A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found 84 percent of those identifying as Republicans either strongly or somewhat approved of Trump’s performance. Only 14 percent of self-identifying Republicans disapproved. Eighty-two percent of Republicans responding to the same poll labeled a health care overhaul bill a “top” or “important” priority for Washington. Eighty-one percent of GOP responders called an immigration bill a “top” or “important” priority.

Doing the hustle ...

Trump saying Republicans won’t unveil their health care plan until after the 2020 election “tells you all you need to know,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters last week.

“I’m from Brooklyn. I know a hustle when we see one,” the New York Democrat said a day before Trump dropped the idea under pressure from leading Republican lawmakers. “Donald Trump is hustling the American people straight out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s a shame.”

James Manley, a Democratic strategist, said, “We’ve never seen anything like his punt on health care. … This president wakes up and follows his impulses, governing by tweet because he thinks that’s what will play best to his base. ... But his poll numbers just aren’t going to move.”

Another reason the double backtrack will likely be merely a blip on the 2020 radar: Despite voters’ ongoing worries about the long-term stability of the economy, it remains strong. The economy added 196,000 jobs in March, bouncing back from a lackluster February, according to data the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday. That beat many economists’ expectations for job growth around 177,000. The unemployment rate again stood at 3.8 percent in March.

Watch: Trump’s Great Lakes backtrack

“The economic numbers … are very, very good. Our country is doing unbelievably well economically,” Trump said Friday as he left the White House for the southern border in California. “The country is doing really, really well.”

All incumbent presidents with economic numbers as strong as Trump has 19 months before the election would make that a major re-election issue, and this commander in chief already is doing just that. The economy might even expand his political base, which hovers around 40 percent of population, according to one political operative.

With “the economy rolling like this, why wouldn’t they give to the super PAC? Why wouldn’t they give to the re-election campaign? Why wouldn’t they keep lending [their] support?” Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour, said about wealthy GOP donors when asked on MSNBC why some who did not vote for Trump in 2016 might do so this time.

“They may not like him personally. But if you’ve got these numbers, why would you [support the Democratic nominee]?” she asked rhetorically. “What is the alternative? And if the … message of some of the Democrats is basically, ‘Eat the rich,’ I mean, why would you do that?”

Back to Mexico

If his backtracking bothered him, the president wasn’t showing it. In fact, he pivoted to attacks on Joe Biden, declaring as he left the White House on Friday morning that he isn’t worried about the former vice president taking his job. And he reveled in his new threat to tax Mexican automobiles. 

[‘I don't see Joe Biden as a threat,’ Trump says]

“I may shut it down at some point, but I’d rather do tariffs. So Mexico, I have to say, has been very, very good … over the last four days since I talked about shutting down the border,” he said, referring to administration claims that the Mexican government is stopping migrants headed for the United States.

“If they [continue] any of that, everything will be fine,” Trump said with his usual bravado. “If they don’t, we’re going to tariff their cars at 25 percent coming into the United States. … They’ll work. But if they didn’t work, I will close the border.”

When it comes to his conservative base and even many other Republicans, “even when he backs off something, I don’t think they blame him,” Brookings’ Galston said. “There’s simply no evidence that any of this has shaken his base or altered his job approval rating significantly. … 2020 will be a battle between a fixed point and a variable. Dems will define this with who they nominate.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.