USA Politics

Trump's been quieter lately. Is that a trend?

Finding the patterns

The combative style of President Trump was part of his appeal as a candidate. But as president, a less-testy few days seem to have helped his approval ratings.

President Trump looks at exhibits as he visits the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Feb. 21 A quotation from boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, "I shook up the world!" is painted at the end of the hall.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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The last few days have been perhaps the quietest stretch of the new Trump presidency.

On Tuesday, for instance, President Trump went to the African-American Museum in Washington, and the visit seemed ... normal. Mr. Trump walked the halls like any respectful visitor, paying particular attention to Nat Turner’s Bible and an exhibit on boxer Muhammad Ali. Afterwards he gave a short speech decrying racism and anti-Semitic attacks.

“I pledge to do everything I can to continue that promise of freedom for African Americans and for every American. So important. Nothing more important,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, Trump’s tweets have been relatively non-flammable. He hasn’t fired anyone high-ranking. His choice of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster for national security adviser has drawn praise from all quarters.

Has Trump pivoted to a new, more presidential persona? Has the other Trump – the one prone to social-media outbursts and verbal spats with journalists – been put away in a corner, or at least banished for now?

That’s unlikely. Judging by Trump’s track record, his unvarnished personality will reappear soon. But the good Trump/bad Trump duality of this week offers a reminder that the president’s approach can indeed vary. We all contain multitudes, to paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman – and that includes Trump, who has flaws and strengths, as all presidents have.

“The question is, can he go more than four or five days without creating some controversy over something awful he tweeted because he got angry over something he saw on Fox News?” says Brian Rosenwald, a political and media historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Probably no.”

The Trump administration appears well aware that it needs to step back and calm down the music following weeks in which the White House appeared close to chaotic. Time Magazine’s stylized cover of last week, which depicted Trump beset by a cyclone of wind and rain in the Oval Office, isn’t a look any president wants to see, even one who fancies himself disrupter-in-chief.

Even supporters say: Leave Twitter alone

So this week the watchword is perhaps “sunny.” With Congress on recess and lawmakers back in their districts, it’s a good time to pull back a bit and get ready for Washington battles to come. Next week, Trump will give his first big address to a joint session of Congress, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer at his briefing on Wednesday said the tone of that address is likely to be optimistic.

“This is an opportunity for him to lay out a very positive vision for the nation and to really let America know where we can go and how we can get there and the potential that we have as a nation,” Mr. Spicer said.

Of course, many of Trump’s core supporters are happy with his combative style. When he denigrates the media and speaks out against the judiciary in support of his partial immigration ban, they feel he his taking a stand against what they feel to be the strangling kudzu of political correctness.

But even many of them believe it’s time for Trump to take it down a notch.

Roy Orlinger, a retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and a Trump supporter in Warm Springs, Ga., says part of Trump’s strategy for success is that “he doesn’t have to answer to the news media.” However, he questions Trump’s reliance on short Twitter messages to tweak – and at times inflame – the national conversation.

Though he likens Trump’s tweeting to Presdient Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Mr. Orlinger ruefully notes that FDR resisted doing too many of those due to a belief that it would water down their effectiveness.

“Twitter could ultimately be counterproductive” for Trump’s policy agenda, Orlinger says. “He needs to leave it alone.”

Republicans on the fence

Trump’s ability to connect with some elements of US society in a way they’ve been yearning for is one big reason he won the White House in the first place. But not all Trump supporters are die-hards, points out Brian Rosenwald of the University of Pennsylvania. Some Republicans and Republican-leaning independents cringe at Trump’s crude slaps and harsh words.

Polls reflect this split attitude. Fully 89 percent of Republican-leaning voters judge Trump a “strong leader,” in a recent large Pew Research survey. But less than half, 48 percent, describe him as “even-tempered.”

Thus in the recent stretch of relatively even Trump behavior, his overall polls have ticked upwards. True, daily tracking polls are pretty variable. But in Gallup’s tracking survey Trump bottomed out the day after he fired National Security Adviser Ray Flynn, with a job approval rating of negative 18 percentage points. Since then, Trump has done better. The most recent poll puts net approval at negative 10. (That’s the share of Americans who approve, minus the share who disapprove).

The bottom line: It appears that a certain percentage of Republican-leaning voters want to support Trump, but waver depending on his behavior and mood. When he tweets, they flee. When he’s quiet, they come back. That could indicate that Trump’s polls aren’t quite as bad as they seem.

“There are a lot of Republicans who desperately want to support him,” Professor Rosenwald says.

Would Trump be better off to not tweet or vent at freewheeling press conferences at all? Yes, he probably would. But President Lyndon Johnson would have been better off if he had not been so afraid of being judged weak on Vietnam, and reduced the size of US forces in the country. President Bill Clinton would have been better off if he’d stayed away from a young intern. Sometimes strong political skills come packaged with weaknesses.

Beware the elites?

For Trump, the real problem may not be voters so much as the so-called elite groups he attacks.

Consider his press conference of last week. His blustering, at times hard-to-follow performance might have played well enough with public supporters.

But members of Congress, lobbyists, ambassadors, journalists, bureaucrats, and other professional political participants whose jobs required them to follow the entire performance probably had a far more negative reaction, according to political scientist David Hopkins of Boston College.

Many of them thought it a strange performance. And they can have a large influence on the success or failure of Trump’s domestic and foreign agenda in the months ahead.

A few tweet-light days may not change their opinions.

“The most important audience for Trump’s appearance was the highly observant set of ... influential political figures whose trust and cooperation is essential to the success of any administration, but who have grown increasingly uneasy over the course of the past month,” wrote Professor Hopkins last week on his “Honest Graft” political blog.

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.