WASHINGTON - On January 20, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States, something few people could have imagined on that June day in 2015 when he glided down the escalator in the lobby of Trump Tower and announced he was running for president to “make America great again.”
Trump barely registered in the polls when he began his quest, but he built his brand as a political outsider during a campaign cycle when many pundits underestimated the public’s craving for change.
“I think we all, including the media, ‘mis-underestimated,’ as [former president] George W. Bush might say, the profound desire for change,” said Tom DeFrank of the National Journal, who has covered presidential elections for 40 years. “And in end, Trump, with all his imperfections, with all his blemishes, was the only perceived agent of change.”
Trump made his mark early with promises to build a border wall that Mexico would pay for and to halt Muslims from coming into the country, a stand he later described as “extreme vetting.” Trump’s pledges fired up his base, especially white working class voters, but provoked strong opposition from Democrats and even some establishment Republicans.
During a Republican debate in Las Vegas in December of 2015, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, long considered one of the favorites for the party nomination, clashed with Trump over his aggressive campaign style. “This is a tough business,” said Bush, “and we need to have a leader, and you are never going to be president of the United States by insulting your way to the presidency.”
But Trump quickly fired back. “Yeah, you’re a tough guy, Jeb,” but then quickly added, “Let’s see, I’m at 42 [percent in the polls] and you are at three, so, so far I’m doing better.”
Taking on Clinton
After dispatching Bush and the rest of the Republican field, Trump entered the general election campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton a decided underdog. Despite contentious debates that seemed to boost Clinton's chances, Trump proceeded to pull off one of the great election upsets in recent memory with his victory on November 8.
Clinton’s singular aim seemed to be to portray Trump as unfit to be president. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” Clinton said to a thunderous roar in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July in Philadelphia.
Trump was able to withstand the Clinton attacks with an unbridled appeal to working class voters who believe they have largely been ignored by both parties for decades.
Trump’s rise as a political outsider and a promiser of change has important implications for both parties, said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“It’s both a shift away from Democrats and the Obama administration, but it’s also a shift within the Republican Party to an agenda that is more oriented toward the white working class that we hadn’t seen before in the party,” he said.
In his victory speech in the early hours of November 9, Trump sounded a conciliatory tone after a divisive campaign. “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.”
Clinton also urged her supporters to respect the outcome.
“Donald Trump is going to be our president," she said. "We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
Busy first 100 days
Despite the insistence from many Democrats that Trump does not have a mandate, most political observers expect a flurry of activity in his first 100 days in office including action to repeal much of President Barrack Obama’s signature health care law, plus moves on tax reform and cutting government regulations.
“Donald Trump does have majorities in both houses of Congress,” said John Fortier, “and I think that does allow him to have an agenda that goes forward on domestic policy legislation where Hillary Clinton would have had a harder time with divided government doing those things.”
In early December, Trump was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” But the magazine cover also included a second description of Trump as “President of the Divided States of America.” Trump took issue with that on NBC’s Today program.
Trump said “I didn’t divide them,” and then vowed to bring them back together. “We’re going to have a country that is very well healed.”
Trump’s favorability rose to 50 percent in a recent Bloomberg News poll. But that still lags behind other recent presidents-elect including Barack Obama (68 percent), George W. Bush (59 percent) and Bill Clinton (58 percent).
A new Marist poll found 44 percent of those surveyed believe Trump so far is changing the country for the better, while 34 percent said it was for worse and 17 percent said there was no change. Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said Trump “has been reaching out to his base but has not broadened his support.”
Whatever Trump says about trying to foster national unity will get intense scrutiny when he speaks to the nation and the world in his inaugural address on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20.