Donald Trump and Barack Obama do not share much in common. Their temperaments are different, they have different partisan allegiances and assembled vastly different political coalitions. But ironically, they seem to be following the same path to reelection.
It might be hard to even fathom that Trump is on the path to reelection. His approval ratings are somewhere between bad and apocalyptic, his endorsement of TWO Republicans in Alabama proved to be a duds and his administration has reeled from self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound.
It’s true these events are somewhat different than Obama’s first year in office but they follow the same pattern of a President with a Congressional majority struggling to govern.
However, both administrations share many similarities. Just as the Trump administration suffered a setback in Alabama this month, Obama suffered the same when Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in deep blue Massachusetts went red in January. Likewise, both administrations suffered high profile legislative failures with the GOP failing to repeal the ACA over the summer and Democrats failing to pass Cap and Trade in 2010. Both the GOP Healthcare bill and Democratic energy bills passed the House but not the Senate. Members of the Presidents parties in both cases killed the efforts.
In the same vein, the successes of both Presidents on certain issues was largely ignored by the public in the runup to the midterms. In Trump’s case, the roaring success of the economy has been overshadowed by cultural clashes over immigrants, racism and xenophobia. Obama actually had largely succeeded in bridging the cultural divide but the economy was still tepid at best though on the rise (more on that in a minute). Likewise, Obama and Trump both succeeded on the foreign policy front with Obama benefiting from the Bush troop surge in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump, listening to his generals, has decimated ISIS all while being able to claim he did not put boots on the ground (special operations and trainers excluded).
We know the story arc of Obama’s White House. Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010 and a Democratic President suddenly had to work with a hostile Congress. Obama handled this by working with Republicans where he could (sequestration), but also tactically picking his battles, especially in the heat of the 2012 campaign. It rarely gets noted but Obama won reelection as a populist and forging a fragile, college educated white collar base buttressed by blue-collar whites and high black turnout across the Midwest.
The economic uptick did not hurt Obama either and by mid 2012 the economy was steadily recovering and adding jobs. Obama campaigned on a recovering economy heavily. Obviously, Trump has the benefit of a growing economy and tax cuts are expected to add fuel to the fire but the GOP is likely to be ousted from the House (if not the Senate). Just as Democrats found themselves in after the 2010 midterms.
After a shaky first nine months in office the Trump administration, to John Kelly’s credit, seems to have regained its footing. Tax reform was its crowning achievement. Healthcare reform, for all GOP fear-mongering, was a help more than a hindrance for Obama in his reelection campaign much as tax reform is to be for Trump.
Exit polls showed Obama benefited from healthcare reform in his reelection bid. College educated Obama voters supported it as did blue-collar whites and those making below $50K. In the end Obama won the election not on the issues but rather whether voters felt he understood their concerns. This cut across the educational and ideological spectrum.
Trump has the same opportunity after a rocky start. Already, Mitch McConnell has signaled the Senate is not going to take up red-meat conservative issues such as entitlement reform. Additionally, Trump has signaled he wants to work with Democrats on an annual budget ending the sequester/budget caps and pass an infrastructure plan. If Republicans lose unified control of Congress next year, Trump can run against Democrats as obstructionist (see Obama circa 2012) and yet also appeal to voters on economic issues and highlight both big (tax reform) and small policy (Carrier keeping factory jobs in the US) successes to appeal to the college educated voters who (likely) opposed him in the midterms.
Already, the basis for this dynamic can be found in polls showing voters disapproving of his overall performance. But, when it comes to the economy, voters are much more glowing in their view of the President. By 2012, the same thing was happening for Obama on healthcare.
Notably, this analysis relies on a few assumptions. First, Republicans will not regain their standing before the 2018 midterms and will suffer the loss of one or both chambers of Congress. Secondly, it assumes the economy keeps growing and does not dip into a recession. Thirdly, it assumes Trump can recover as Obama did after 2010 and forge a new, winning electoral coalition that has different challenges but will lead to the same result. If he can, Trump will once again have defied his critics, the analysts and be more like Obama than he probably wants to admit.