President Donald Trump was more a measured statesman than political streetfighter Thursday during his much-anticipated Independence Day address. But expectations are low that his patriotic — even, at times, unifying — message will boost his reelection odds.
Impressed early in his term as the guest of honor at France’s 2017 Bastille Day celebration, which featured an elaborate military parade, the U.S. commander in chief on Thursday deployed Air Force One, jets from the Air Force and Navy, helicopters from the Army and Marines — and even a Stealth Bomber — to the National Mall. And, in a speech that connected Thomas Jefferson with the Apollo crew that landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago, Trump struck a rare unifying tone.
“As we gather this evening … we remember that we all share a truly extraordinary heritage. Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told: the story of America,” Trump said under a light drizzle on a humid day in Washington. “It is the epic tale of a great nation whose people have risked everything for what they know is right and what they know is true.”
But political experts and average Americans who made the trek to downtown Washington for the Independence Day event agreed the made-for-television spectacle was unlikely to change any minds about the polarizing president.
“I think this is mostly about his reelection. He wants to show people he’s a strong leader and a powerful man,” Arindam Mukerjee of Philadelphia said late Thursday afternoon. A few hours before Trump made his entrance via his armored limousine, “The Beast,” Mukerjee said he wanted the president to “be more inclusive” when speaking from the Lincoln Memorial.
Trump appears to have cleared that bar. But will Thursday matter much come Election Day in November 2020?
“If the July 4 celebration moves the needle, I’ll eat my new UNC hat,” said Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor. “Opinions about Trump have hardened and are polarized. There is nothing about the Fourth of July celebration that cuts across those already existing and strongly felt opinions.”
Throughout the afternoon, Trump supporters shook their heads and said they would not change their minds about the president if he used the event to take a few shots at Democrats or undocumented migrants.
One was Joel Guthrie, whose white hair poked out from under his red “Make America Great Again” cap.
“It probably wouldn’t bother me one bit because I’m a staunch supporter,” he said. “I like how he’s gotten tough with our radical enemies like Iran, and the radical Muslims that want to get us all.”
Don Kriner of Brooksville, Florida, who was selling Trump gear on Pennsylvania Avenue, described himself as a “registered Democrat” who is “basically a Trump supporter” these days. Why?
“The Democrats lost me when Bill Clinton did NAFTA,” he said, adding textile mills and steel factories soon began closing in his native southern Illinois.
Kriner expects Trump will win a second a term, but shook his head when asked if the July 4 military-heavy event would help the president do that. And a woman from nearby Maryland who identified herself only as Lisa agreed, saying “everybody’s pretty much made up their minds one way or another about Trump. This won’t matter. It’s just one more crazy, weird thing he’s done. But his people will love it all.”
Trump has frequently portrayed critics as peddlers of “fake news,” and Thursday’s speech may provide him with new fodder. Dire warnings about tanks chewing up Washington streets turned out to be baseless. So did complaints he would turn a holiday reserved for picnics and pie into a government-funded campaign rally.
Once the Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles that were positioned near the Lincoln Memorial are removed, political professionals will study whether Trump got what might be called a “flyover bounce.”
Strategists from both parties say the president and his reelection campaign team are attempting to reconstruct the 2016 Electoral College map that put him in the White House. And several analysts contacted for this article agreed the Independence Day rally, with its heavy military presence, was yet another play to the conservative base that was the foundation of his 2016 win.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who said he visits the White House regularly, sees a “calculated” reelection strategy.
“The president is trying to make sure he has that base firmly in his camp,” said O’Connell, also an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Base-focused rallies and events could have another benefit, he said, by “demoralizing Democrats and depressing the other guy’s turnout.”
But another Republican strategist says the Lincoln Memorial “celebration” could backfire with a key voting bloc that polls show are growing weary of Trump’s brusque style.
“I put this in the same category as repainting Air Force One: an affront to tradition, and a signal of misplaced priorities, but hardly a threat to American democracy. I can’t imagine it moves the needle in terms of the public debate or changes anyone’s mind about the president,” said Michael Steel, a former senior aide to then-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“It also probably seems gauche and unnecessary to some educated suburban women,” he added.
As Trump spoke in front of the iconic statue of the country’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, he addressed a country sharply divided politically — and about his controversial, norms-busting presidency. Polls in key battleground states show him trailing several leading 2020 Democratic White House hopefuls.
Approval rating steady
His approval rating has remained steadily in the low 40 percent range during much of his two-and-a-half years in office. Since January, it has fluctuated only slightly, mostly between 40 percent and 46 percent — with lows of 37 percent in two polls conducted in the first month of the year, according to Gallup. It crested at 46 percent in April but had dipped to 41 percent in the nonpartisan organization’s most recent survey.
Inside those numbers is the wide chasm between Republican and Democratic voters: Eighty-nine percent of those identifying as GOP voters approve of his performance, with 92 percent of Democrats saying they disapprove.
And with an increasing number of House Democrats pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to begin impeachment proceedings against him, 92 percent of Republicans told Gallup they would oppose such a move. Highlighting the country’s partisan split, 81 percent of Democrats say they support an impeachment process.
One Democratic strategist said the July 4 event won’t change any minds among voters, adding it likely will be “net neutral” among members of his party. But it could turn off moderate and blue-collar Democratic voters who broke last time for the president, he said.
“Voters in the industrial Midwest are concerned about their health care costs and this economy, which isn’t helping them all that much despite the president’s boasting,” strategist Brad Bannon said. “This whole thing on the Mall doesn’t do a thing to address the problems that real people have.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, one of the few among more than two dozen Democrats seeking the presidential nomination who has won election in a place Trump also carried, seized on that theme Thursday. Bullock tweeted a link to a Washington Post story that the flyovers could cost the government $2 million.
“Kids are in cages at the border — and this is his priority?” Bullock wrote.
Democrats are unlikely to let Trump bask in any July 4 afterglow, Bannon said, predicting they will continue to hammer the president and his administration over migrant detainee facilities some of them toured last week. They reported overcrowding, small children being mistreated, and Border Patrol agents disrespecting them online and in person.
“I think the White House and his campaign are underestimating that the backdrop for this rally and the flyovers doesn’t in any way reflect Americans’ values,” Bannon said. “You’ve got [migrant] children in concentration camps and tanks on the streets of Washington, DC. Are those really the optics of a winning campaign in the United States?”
The woman from Maryland who was sitting outside the Museum of American History holding a “Baby Trump” balloon, Lisa, said the president’s July 4 military “celebration” won’t help assuage her concerns about “our education system” or just what kind of unresolved problems her 17-year-old son might have to deal with down the road.
“But, you know what, the Democrats that are running aren’t talking about education or the health care system really, either,” she said. “They’re talking about all this far-out stuff that really doesn’t matter.”
Not everyone on the Mall on Thursday was thinking about the president, his chances to win a second term or Democratic candidates’ campaign-trail talking points.
“I’m just here to spend some quality time with my wife and watch some fireworks,” said Jerome Jones of Washington. “He’s going to do what he’s going to do, you know?”
Asked if his mindset makes him feel less stressed than those who keep close tabs on Trump’s turbulent and often-noisy president: “Oh, definitely. For sure.”