WASHINGTON - It was a made-for-TV moment that all presidents would relish, but it seemed especially significant for the man who turned a reality TV career into a successful bid for the presidency.
Donald Trump triumphantly greeted the three Americans released by North Korea in the early morning darkness at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington early Thursday, an image one can expect to see over and over again come the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign.
“It was a very important thing to all of us to be able to get these three great people out,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac. He then went on to speculate that live television coverage of the arrival “probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
WATCH: Trump greets hostages released by North Korea
It was a moment the president gladly seized given that his White House has been buffeted by a chaotic mix of policy and personal drama in recent days. The prospect of a potentially historic breakthrough on North Korea could move a number of other unwelcome distractions to the side, including the ongoing Russia investigation, the growing legal difficulties for Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the soap opera that the Stormy Daniels story has become. Daniels is the adult film actress who claims she once had an affair with Trump. He denies the claim.
Trump also announced Thursday on Twitter that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore. A new CNN poll found that 77 percent of those surveyed support Trump meeting the North Korean leader, and 53 percent approve of his handling of the North Korea issue generally.
Those numbers are in keeping with a general trend of late that has seen the president’s poll ratings improving, perhaps in part because of the strong economy.
The president’s average approval rating at the moment is around 42 percent, up from the 39 to 40 percent ratings he was getting for months. That may not sound like much of an improvement, but given that Trump has been mired in the weakest poll ratings of any first-term president since World War II, it will be seen as good news by his supporters.
Even with the slight improvement, though, many analysts say Trump remains a polarizing figure.
“I think for both sides, people who like Donald Trump and who don’t like Donald Trump, positions have hardened,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “And it is interesting to see that his approval ratings have not changed dramatically in the last several months even though it seems like a lot has happened.”
That includes this week’s decision by the president to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, fulfilling yet another campaign pledge from 2016. Trump condemned the deal as “defective at its core.”
Many Democrats disagreed with the president’s action, including Maryland Senator Ben Cardin.
“Withdrawing from the nuclear agreement isolates America, and I think it helps Iran and it works against our objectives to control their type of activities,” Cardin told reporters.
Trump has long complained that he gets little credit for the strong U.S. economy, and he frequently has lashed out at the news media for what he sees as its preoccupation with the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“So we have the best employment numbers we have virtually ever had. And yet, all we hear about is this phony Russia witch hunt. That is all we hear about,” Trump told an enthusiastic audience of National Rifle Association members recently in Dallas, Texas.
In many surveys, Trump retains the support of 80 to 90 percent of Republican voters, a likely dividend of his relentless efforts to cater to his political base and remind them of campaign promises kept.
Trump often reminds voters about the partisan stakes in this November’s midterm elections and warns about the prospect of a Democratic takeover of Congress.
“The more partisan you are, the more likely you are to be loyally behind Trump and the more likely you are to think that the Democratic Party is posing a threat for America, and consequently when you feel that, then virtually any means are necessary to combat that threat,” said Henry Olsen with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
But Brookings Institution expert Bill Galston argued that even with the president’s slight improvement in the polls, Trump remains a catalyst for opposition Democrats.
“President Trump’s job approval remains near historic lows for a first-term president and there are signs that Democrats at the grass roots are highly mobilized and record numbers are showing up and presenting themselves as candidates for office.”
Trump hopes to keep the focus on the domestic economy and North Korea, and away from the Russia probe, the legal problems facing his personal attorney Michael Cohen, and the legal battle over his alleged affair with Daniels.
The president is well aware that any good news credit he can accrue between now and November could help Republicans resist what is expected to be a fierce Democratic campaign in the midterm elections in which control of both the House and Senate is very much in doubt.