By Lisa Lerer and Annie Karni
Donald Trump entered the political arena five years ago with a ride down his golden escalator and a clear if concise platform for his presidential campaign.
“I would repeal and replace the big lie, Obamacare,” he said. “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me.” He added a flourish that became a campaign rallying cry: “I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
This time around, Trump has struggled to make the election about anything other than himself.
For months, his advisers have pushed him to lay out a vision for a second term, putting out news releases for him that promise a mission to Mars, a “manned presence on the moon,” and the “world’s greatest infrastructure system.” Those proposals, though lacking in detail, have been driven in part by the campaign’s internal polling, which shows that voters want to hear his plans.
But “the vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush once called it, takes up little time at the president’s rallies.
Instead, Trump has promised more of the same and warned that the alternative could be scarier. The problem of running with little new to say has been most pronounced in the campaign’s throwback of a slogan: “Make America Great Again, Again.”
Even some supporters remain uncertain of what Trump plans to do with a second term.
“I haven’t looked into it much. I don’t know,” said Kyla Burns, 20, when asked to name a policy or issue the president might pursue, as she strolled through the historic town center of Delaware, Ohio. “I was just like, I need to vote and put my name out there to support him.”
For a presidency defined by breaches of political and presidential tradition, Trump’s inability to detail how he would use four more years remains a notable break with every other general election candidate in recent American history.
Four years ago, Trump centered his campaign on a series of broad pledges — cracking down on China, restricting immigration and “draining the swamp” of Washington — though the specificity of his promises did not match those provided in a 288-page book released by Hillary Clinton’s campaign detailing her plans.
Now, much of his agenda seems rooted in reprising past battles and on simply returning to the pre-coronavirus economic gains he claims credit for. The bulk of his message is focused on attacking Joe Biden and playing down the continuing threat of the virus, with little attention paid to how he would pull the country out of the pandemic. He has ruled out future shutdowns, which he has little control over as president, and has falsely argued that the virus is receding even as cases surge.
“We’ve never seen this before,” said Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian. “In traditional American presidential election theater, you’re forced to lay out your plan for tomorrow.”
He added, “Trump doesn’t play by that rule.”
While the echoes of 2016 are clear, their resonance is not. A sitting president is not a political outsider coming to shake up Washington, and voters want to know why he should keep his job, said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist working on congressional races in battleground states.
“My experience is that the voters generally hire you to do the next job — not the last job,” he said.
Instead, Trump has largely framed his candidacy around what he is not: “the radical left” Democrats.
“These people are crazy,” he said at a recent campaign rally, describing his opposition. “We have to win.”
Trump’s hollow agenda isn’t a problem for his strongest supporters, who have forged an emotional connection with a president they believe is under attack from the government he oversees. But it’s hurting him with swing voters struggling with the pandemic and a moribund economy, Todd said.
Republicans in swing states would like to see the president focus on an economic recovery message in the final days of the campaign, a strategy that requires discipline that Trump has never been able to demonstrate.
Recent polling shows that Trump trails on all of the pressing issues of the election. Voters are now evenly split on whom they trust to manage the economy, according to a national poll of likely voters conducted this month by The New York Times and Siena College.
Kellyanne Conway, a former White House official and Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, argued that the president had, in fact, articulated a second-term agenda, based around economic recovery and vaccine development. In contrast, she said, Biden’s entire “raison d’être” appears to be, “I’m not Trump.”
“That is a big question for the voters — is the antidote to uncertainty more uncertainty, or a ‘don’t rock the boat’ stance that keeps intact the big-ticket items like oil- and fracking-related jobs, energy and manufacturing jobs, and trade deals?” Conway said.
Some supporters say that they just want more of what the president has already delivered.
“He’s making sure the Americans, not the illegal immigrants, are getting what they deserve,” said Diana Converse, 55, a janitor from Westerville, Ohio. “He’s going to continue doing what he is doing: his job.”
Democratic voters have filled Trump’s policy blanks with their own theories about his plans.
“His agenda, in my mind, can be based on what will be his own financial best interests, whether that’s doing the bidding of Putin or somebody else,” said John Tanoury, 69, a lawyer from Upper Arlington, Ohio, who is backing Biden. “How that manifests itself in programs, I’m not that sure.”
Incumbent presidents typically update their messages for their reelection races. Former President Bill Clinton promised to build a “bridge to the 21st century,” rolling out economic policies aimed at middle-class families. George W. Bush offered “A Safer World and a More Hopeful America,” with a slate of conservative economic and national security policies. And Barack Obama ran with a one-word theme — “Forward!”— centering his campaign on a promise to continue the recovery from the Great Recession.
The goal of a second-term platform is not just politics. Presidential candidates seek a mandate from voters for action.
“You’re starting the process early by thinking about what the agenda is going to be out of the gate,” said Sara Fagen, who was the White House political director for George W. Bush. “Typically, the first year of a presidency legislatively is the most robust. It’s when you get the most accomplished.”
Over the summer, allies of Trump’s like former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey warned that the president would lose if he did not stop running the 2016 campaign all over again, and a group of White House aides met for several weeks to formulate some new ideas.
Then, in August, the Republican Party announced that it would not formulate a new policy platform and instead passed a resolution renewing what the delegates enacted in 2016. It was the first time the party had not crafted a new agenda since 1856.
A few days later, during the national party convention, the Trump campaign issued detail-free pledges for a second term, such as “Return to normal in 2021” and “Drain the Globalist Swamp by Taking on International Organizations That Hurt American Citizens.”
Trump has offered no additional details, even when asked by his friendliest interlocutors.
“What are your top priority items for a second term?” Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and informal presidential adviser, asked the president at a town hall event in June.
Trump offered that he felt more experienced after four years in office and that he regretted some of the people he had hired, singling out his former national security adviser John Bolton.
In an interview with The New York Times in August, Trump offered perhaps the most honest response to the job candidate questionnaire. Pressed on how he would behave if voters reelected him, he said, “I think I’d be similar.” A second term, he added, would mean more of the same.
“I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done,” he said.
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