The president took a crowd of supporters in Orlando on a journey through time last Tuesday as he formally announced his re-election bid. He dropped his now-familiar attack lines that elicited chants of “Lock her up” for Clinton and boos for Obama.
Curiously, he opted against aiming rhetorical jabs at most of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls. It was a departure from almost every other rally he has held since becoming president — including his homestretch barnstorming for Republican Senate nominees before last year’s midterms.
The president flashed a 2020 approach that closely resembles the one he employed three years ago from places like Madison, Alabama; Dimondale, Michigan; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Manheim, Pennsylvania. Only now, Obama appears to be enjoying his post-presidency and Clinton won’t be on the ballot.
“Talking about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is another way of saying, ‘Do you want to go back to the way things were?’” said Whit Ayers, a GOP consultant to clients such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Trump critics-turned-allies. “And for his base — which is the only group he really targets — the answer is a resounding, ‘No.’”
The devil you know?
Evan Siegfried, another Republican strategist, said reprising the successful 2016 message was the only legitimate play for Trump’s re-election effort.
“They really don’t have much else that excites the base more than saying very harsh things about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” he said. “They don’t yet have a villain for Trump to go after. There was Nancy Pelosi in 2018, but how did that work out? She’s the speaker of the House now, for crying out loud.”
A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not directly answer when asked about the Obama- and Clinton-heavy re-election rally.
Erin Perrine, the campaign’s deputy communications director, signaled in an email that a big part of Trump’s pitch for a second term will be to do something else he did in Orlando: Talk about his first term. That means touting the tax law he signed in late 2017, the unemployment rate, and “giving terminally ill people a chance with ‘Right to Try,’” Perrine said. (The latter refers to a bipartisan bill he signed that allows very ill patients to access medicines not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)
“When it comes to the noise of the Dem wannabes, we will continue to share the message of ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’ in towns and cities across America,” Perrine said.
Trump and his campaign are already trying to rebuild the 2016 Electoral College map that improbably put him in the White House in the first place. Republican and Democratic strategists call that a long shot, and it begs the question: Can the same message that fueled a dark horse campaign work for an incumbent four years later?
“At some point, you’re going to need to talk about plans for the next four years,” Ayers said. “This president has never been a policy wonk beyond being tough on immigration or saying, ‘Let’s build a wall.’ You can’t expect details, but you have to give people some sense of their future. … And they haven’t tried to expand the coalition, really, at all.”
Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, recently dismissed any need to reach out to voters who were not part of the president’s 2016 coalition.
“People all think you have to change people’s minds. You have to get people to show up that believe in you,” he told Time magazine.
But some GOP operatives contacted for this story and others who have spoken to CQ Roll Call in recent months say Parscale’s strategy amounts to trying to thread a thick string through a tight needle.
“When you won a presidential election like Trump did in 2016 by just 77,000 votes in three states, you’re dancing on the head of a pin here,” Siegfried said, letting out a long sigh.
Another hurdle is a disapproval rating that consistently hovers around 50 percent, said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who said he visits the White House regularly.
“No modern president who has avoided recession has not been re-elected,” he said. “So if he avoids that, the disapproval number is probably what worries them the most.”
To that end, Trump has been trying to convince voters that some of the leading Democrats would be worse. One of the few 2020 candidates he called out by name Tuesday night was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — or “Crazy Bernie,” as Trump called him.
The president warned that Sanders supported “the socialist government takeover of health care.” He was referring to Obama’s signature 2010 health care law that Trump has tried to dismantle since taking office.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic front-runner, also came up. But even then Trump merely attempted to link Biden to his former boss, Obama.
“We would lose $500 billion a year with China. We rebuilt China,” Trump roared from a stage at the 20,000-seat Amway Center. “They’ve done a great job, but they took us for suckers and that includes Obama and Biden. … They took us for suckers.”
There was no chiding of “Pocahontas” — read: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — for overstating her Native American ancestry. There was no description of former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke as “crazy” for gesturing with his hands when he speaks publicly, or mocking his tumble in the polls. There was no accusation that “Sleepy Joe Biden” looks differently and exhibits no pizazz on the campaign trail. And he left out his using lines lambasting Speaker Nancy Pelosi and firebrand fellow New York native Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But there was a whole lot of Obama and Clinton.
Trump — written off in 2015 and 2016 as something of a reality show carnival barker — and Parscale have defied the odds before. And the president signaled last week in Orlando that he’s ready to make it 2016 all over again.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.