Trump’s Trumpy Transition Saps Biden and Himself

The one serious skill President Donald Trump has is his ability to draw attention from the news media. That helped him enormously when seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2015 and 2016, then probably hurt him a bit during the general election campaign in 2016. During his presidency, Trump’s ability to draw attention was sort of irrelevant to both governing and to his popularity, given that presidents draw plenty of attention regardless of the person involved, but his quest for it was probably a distraction from better uses of his time.

Now Trump is giving every sign of attempting to maintain his TV ratings during the transition to President-elect Joe Biden. He’s pretending to contest an election that’s not particularly close, with plans to resume rallies to spread false, evidence-free claims of fraud. And he fired — “terminated,” as he described it on Twitter — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday, with rumors swirling about other pointless executions to come. 

It’s not clear what effect all of this will have on Biden’s new administration, or on the two important Senate runoff elections in Georgia coming up in January. I don’t want to speculate about future public opinion.

We do know, however, a bit about past public opinion. We know that most outgoing presidents experience at least a modest post-election improvement in their approval ratings measured by public-opinion polls, including defeated presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. It’s easy to imagine why that happens. For defeated presidents, months of attacks from the opposing party are usually replaced by efforts from the president-elect to talk about unity. That’s usually accompanied, for all outgoing presidents whether they were on the ballot or not, by pictures of the incoming president visiting the White House — strong visual evidence of that unifying theme. Just getting an unpopular president such as George W. Bush out of the headlines at the end of his tenure probably leads voters to focus less on the controversies of the day and more on whatever strengths he displayed over the course of a presidency.

The one polling-era president who didn’t get a late bounce (other than Dwight Eisenhower, who was already very popular) was Jimmy Carter, who spent his last 10 weeks haplessly trying to free U.S. hostages in Iran. The hostages were eventually set free just as Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in January, thus robbing Carter of any late-term good news. 

Because he is remaining in campaign mode well after the campaign is over, Trump will be evaluated as a candidate, not as a president. That means few if any of those who marginally opposed him will now be prompted to remember what they liked about him. Nor will there be a round of Democrats saying conciliatory things. If he keeps this up, he’ll lose those White House unity photos. That kind of behavior is precisely what helped make Trump — the first president to explicitly begin campaigning for re-election on the day he took office four years ago — also one of the most unpopular presidents ever. So the normal expectation that an outgoing president gains some popularity certainly can’t be assumed when it comes to Trump.

The effect on Biden is harder to predict. On the one hand, part of what produces a presidential honeymoon is that the losing party tends to stay quiet for a while, and often even gives some degree of praise to the newly elected candidate. Biden will be getting less of that than usual. Another part of the honeymoon probably comes from the media portrayal of the president-elect showing him acting decisively to form an administration and an agenda. I’m guessing that coverage of that kind will be crowded out by the Trump effect, which should hurt Biden somewhat.

On the other hand, Biden’s biggest promise is a return to normal politics. It’s certainly possible that Trump’s shenanigans over the remaining transition period will make people even more eager to get rid of him — and that Trump will make Biden look good by comparison, even if we barely see the president-elect.

And without speculating too much on how this will affect the Georgia Senate runoffs, I will say one thing: Biden and the Democrats will be focused on doing their best in those races, while Trump is probably going to be focused primarily on … well, himself. It’s possible he’ll decide that his legacy rests on those contests. It’s also possible that he’ll wind up undercutting the Republican candidates there if they don’t buy into his nonsense about a stolen election. Or by making them feel compelled to talk about fictional voter fraud in Nevada and Pennsylvania while the Democratic candidates talk about the economy and health care and the pandemic and other things that voters care about. Or to put it another way: I strongly suspect that the Republican candidates in Georgia would rather have an election about Biden and what he might do with a Democratic Senate than about whether or not voters like Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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