WASHINGTON - Nearly eight months into his presidency, Donald Trump appears intent on reshaping his image into one of a bipartisan deal maker. On Thursday, Trump told reporters he and Democratic congressional leaders are “fairly close” to reaching a deal to extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Trump’s comments came a day after he hosted a White House dinner for Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the latest example of what appears to be a concerted Trump strategy shift to work more with opposition Democrats, something the president largely avoided during his early months in office.
WATCH: Trump's Outreach to Democrats Carries Risk and Reward
Risk versus reward
But this fragile political détente carries the prospect of both great political reward and high risk. Trump told a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House Wednesday his intent to work with Democrats is more than a fleeting gesture.
“If you look at some of the greatest legislation ever passed, it was done in a bipartisan manner,” Trump told a group convened to discuss tax reform. “And we’ll see what we can do and if it works out, great, and if it doesn’t work out great, hopefully we’ll be able to do it anyways as Republicans. Okay?”
Wednesday's dinner focused on the plight of the so-called “dreamers,” young immigrants who came into the country illegally as children with their parents.The two sides gave varying accounts of what was agreed to during the dinner, but early Thursday the president said that before they can agree “we have to get massive border security.”
On the Senate floor, Schumer described the meeting with Trump as “constructive”, but added “there’s still much to be done.”
Schumer told reporters earlier in the week his party will continue to resist any efforts by Republicans or the White House to link any action on the dreamers to funding for a border wall with Mexico, Trump’s signature campaign pledge.
“Look, I made it so, so clear to the president that there is not going to be a wall,” said Schumer. “I’ve told him over and over again. At one point he said to me, ‘Go easy on the wall.’ I said, ‘No.’”
Many Republicans oppose the president’s outreach to Democrats, which began with an agreement last week to put off fights over the budget and raising the debt ceiling.
Trump’s political pivot toward the Democrats could help him as he continues to struggle with public approval ratings generally below 40 percent, a low for a first-year president.
“This is something that is good for the president in broader terms, though working with Democrats is not something that his base will necessarily respond well to,” said Brookings Institution analyst John Hudak. “But ultimately it is a victory he can point to.”
At the same time, there are risks for Democrats in any political alliance with the Trump White House, especially given the strong anti-Trump sentiment among the Democratic grass roots base.
“And the Democrats are counting on a lot of energy in the base to produce a better outcome for them in the midterm elections than they have seen for quite some time,” said Brookings scholar Bill Galston.
By the same token, cozying up to Democrats could leave the president exposed on his right flank to angry recriminations from Republican voters who are uncomfortable with attempts to find common ground with the opposition.
“Rank-and-file Republicans, and deeply conservative Republicans, will not stand for that,” said John Hudak. “And those types of divisions are ones that can be devastating for a party, not just in terms of politics, but also in terms of future ability to make policy.”
A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found Republicans are much more likely to side with the president than Republican congressional leaders in working with Democrats by a margin of 56 to 28 percent.
Poll show a desire for bipartisanship
Trump has spent much of his first months in office catering to his political base and showed little inclination to try to broaden his appeal among independents or Democrats. But his decision to work with Democrats could boost his ratings with voters who otherwise have not been impressed with his performance so far.
Gallup pollster Frank Newport told VOA that while the country remains sharply polarized, public opinion polls have long indicated voters want the two parties to work together.
“When we actually ask the public, ‘Should our officials compromise more or stick to principles?', and we just asked that question this past weekend, a strong majority said, ‘'No, we want our leaders to compromise, we want them to give in and not stick to principles."
Any fledgling hopes of bipartisan cooperation will be put to the test in the coming weeks as congress wrestles with tax reform, health care, immigration and the budget.