President Donald Trump is in the midst of a polling swoon largely of his own making.
It’s true that events have taken a hand — a pandemic with a death toll of more than 100,000, a sharp recession, double-digit unemployment and civil unrest would be the horsemen of the apocalypse for any incumbent president.
Experiencing all of these in one term would make for treacherous political weather; experiencing them in the space of about three months is a perfect storm.
And yet the president has worsened his position with his profligate tweeting, unpresidential conduct and refusal or inability to step up to the magisterial aspect of his office.
None of this is new, but it acquires a different significance playing out against a backdrop of crisis, when the stakes and emotions are elevated.
The president’s poor ratings on coronavirus have much to do with his overexposure, squabbling with reporters and meandering performances at his news briefings — all of which was avoidable, and indeed was eventually avoided by stopping the briefings.
Quite often, Trump has blown the easy stuff while his team has performed admirably dealing with the more nettlesome issues of governance.
Sounding sober from the presidential podium at a time of crisis should be easy — any halfway accomplished conventional politician could do a pretty good job at it.
Allocating ventilators, acquiring personal protective equipment and ramping up testing on a rapid basis in the middle of a pandemic when the traditional apparatus of government isn’t up to it is hard — and the Trump team has managed it over the past couple of months.
The press doesn’t tell that story, and regardless, it gets overwhelmed by the constant drama emanating from the Oval Office.
In the case of George Floyd, there’s nothing Trump could have done to stop his killing. He’s not the Minnesota governor or the Minneapolis mayor. But he’s been hurt by his reflexively combative posture.
His philosophy is never to give ground, so he has little appreciation for the occasional need for defensive politics — to play against type, to preempt arguments against him, to couple a hard line with a soft sentiment.
As one of the most compelling showmen of our time, his metric for success is different than that of standard politicians or political operatives. He wants coverage, good, bad, or indifferent.
The St. John’s Church visit might have been poorly thought out and politically counterproductive, but who can doubt that it was a jaw-dropping spectacle?
By this standard, the period between mid-March and mid-April was an astonishing success — as the online news outlet Axios has pointed out, Trump dominated former Vice President Joe Biden on cable news mentions, social media interactions, web traffic and Google searches.
But it hasn’t helped his political standing. Trump is never going to change, but in the 2016 campaign, he was able to adjust and modulate at moments of peril just enough to see it through.
This is one of those moments of peril.
Losing to Biden would mean all the changes he pursued through administrative action would be subject to reversal.
It would mean, assuming Democrats take the Senate, too, that his judicial appointments would immediately begin to be counteracted.
It would mean that immigration enforcement would be drastically curtailed.
And it would mean that Trump would suffer the highest profile and most consequential defeat that it is possible to experience in American national life.
Of course, nothing is inevitable. It’s only June, and he’s still relatively strong on the economy. But he has created his own headwind.
If Trump loses in November, it won’t be because he pursued a big legislative reform that was a bridge too far politically. It won’t be because he adopted an unorthodox policy mix that alienated his own side. It won’t even be because he was overwhelmed by events, challenging though they’ve been.
It will mostly be because he took his presidency and drove it into the ground, 280 characters at a time.