It was, for all intensive purposes, the first time in Donald Trump’s fairly infant presidency that he began to show signs of looking presidential.
That was a hard pill to swallow by week’s end for displeased rank and file Republicans who felt betrayed and stunned Democrats, along with legions of natural detractors on the left, who could not believe that deals were even being considered with someone as grotesquely self-interested as President Trump.
Yet, that did happen, despite objections from both left and right – particularly the right – who each viewed the president’s surprising negotiation with Congressional Democrats as something remarkably Faustian.
One theme was consistent throughout the week: the president found himself – perhaps to his satisfaction – in a place where neither side of the political spectrum would be pleased. Spitefully rescinding predecessor President Barack Obama’s executive order on DACA (the special Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program that had been pushed as a breakthrough step towards immigration reform), Trump drew widespread bipartisan condemnation.
Progressives immediately lashed at the decision as inhumane and brutally obtuse; conservatives feared the political ramifications, worried how it could eventually awake a sleeping electoral giant in the Latino voting bloc (thereby ruining expansion chances in 2018) and concerned about the economic impact of ripping away a taxpaying base that is a vibrant part of the community.
“Going after them is a moral outrage, even for the likes of Trump, who just pardoned infamous racist Joe Arpaio,” said Color of Change Senior Campaign director Scott Roberts. “Moreover, it will be disruptive to our economy, as hundreds of thousands of co-workers and employees are forced out of their jobs.”
But hurricanes battering Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean coastlines was an optical opportunity Trump couldn’t resist. As an unprecedented swarm of multiple hurricanes simultaneously wreaked havoc, the president was able to recalibrate from weeks of post-Charlottesville stumbles and an initial post-Harvey Texas visit that was swiftly lampooned as a campaign rally.
The president seemed to pivot with a follow-up Houston visit laced with advantageous selfie moments with Harvey-stricken Black Houston area residents smiling beside the man who had, just weeks before, given double-downed passes to White supremacist groups.
That kicked off White House calls for immediate federal relief funding to Houston and an announcement that the president would personally donate $1 million in relief money.
By the time outrage over DACA bubbled over, the Trump White House beautifully timed a sudden deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in which not only would he get $8 billion in initial Harvey response funding, but Congressional Democrats would provide votes to raise the debt ceiling while avoiding another dreaded and devastating government shutdown.
Still, the president also found himself backed into an impossible corner where few risks were allowed. Just before Harvey hit, the president was, according to sources, “hell bent” on allowing the federal government to default on its loans and trigger a disastrous shutdown of the government.
Hurricane Harvey, with its 25 trillion gallon dump of water on the nation’s fourth largest city, dramatically changed that calculus. Even as harder right elements of the House Republican majority, prompted by the Freedom Caucus, prepared to dig in on a fight over the debt ceiling, Trump had little appetite for a shutdown stalemate that would have effectively defunded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the worst possible time: during a large-scale response operation in the wake of the most destructive flood in U.S. history. Nor could Trump play political chicken as two major battleground states, Texas and Florida, were pummeled by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Not only were these among the most heavily populated states in the nation, but they were states which gave Trump decisive edges over both a competitive GOP primary field and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He trounced Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in his own home state by 19 points in the primary then won it by two points in the general. In Texas, Trump won by nearly 10 points over Clinton.
States in the path of devastating climate-change instigated hurricanes – like Harvey, Irma and Katia – are also Southern and Gulf of Mexico states that Trump won handily.
Allowing a federal government default that prevents effective disaster response is considered “political suicide” by many observers, as Trump’s solid base in impact zones stands to lose the most. The political costs would have been too high, particularly as Trump desperately searches for openings to establish some semblance of footing and credibility.
The deal with Democratic leaders suddenly gives him something to brag about in classic Trumpian form. And “starting, ironically, with Charlottesville through Harvey, the political winds have shifted away from Russia, collusion and removal from office,” said Peter Groff, a former Obama appointee and state legislative leader.
“Consequently, POTUS seems more ‘presidential’ capped off by the deal with Democrats. The media narrative is now about traditional story lines. We’ll probably see an uptick in his numbers.”
Indeed, that’s already happened. The most recent YouGov poll found 55 percent of voters overall “approving strongly” or “approving somewhat” with President Trump’s Harvey response. That included 30 percent of Black voters even as the president refused to meet with any Black elected officials, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) and Congressman Al Green (D-TX), when visiting flooded Harris County last week.
RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages also showed a slight, barely noticeable bump since Harvey hit Houston on August 27th. Since then, the president has watched his average rise almost 2 percentage points.
Still, Lincoln Park Strategies President and former Obama campaign operative Stefan Hankin partly disagrees on the political value. “If pissing off Republicans and especially Republican leadership is presidential then yes,” Hankin told The Tribune. “I think what this showed is the president is quick to make a deal if he thinks the optics will be good for him.
“But two votes on the debt ceiling in one year is not good politics,” he added. “It’s not good policy, either.”
“I’m not sure blindsiding your party leadership and staff is ‘presidential,’” argued Andra Gillespie at Emory University. Gillespie ponders that, ultimately, it’s a short term deal. “The debt ceiling has to be revisited at the end of the year. Democrats don’t have to support the president then, and Republicans, smarting from this week’s repudiation, may not want to play ball with him either.
“Beyond that, even if this move were good, it still doesn’t negate the other issues with his presidency,” he said.