Donald Trump is barnstorming from battleground state to battleground state mostly insulting his Democratic foes and making bleak pronouncements about a Joe Biden presidency — but he also is dropping vague clues about his own possible second term.
The president is running a re-election campaign based mostly on the pre-coronavirus economy, as well as all the gloom and doom that would sweep over the country if the Democratic nominee and former vice president defeats him next week.
At campaign stops on Tuesday, he questioned whether progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Boston University graduate, ever went to college after suggesting a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer might not have been such a bad thing. He also routinely fires off on “Sleepy Joe,” warning of a “Biden depression … the likes of which we've never seen in this country outside of perhaps 1929”.
“It's a choice between a Trump boom or a Biden lockdown,” the president said Tuesday at a rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a state he won narrowly four years ago and where he is closing ground on Mr Biden in the campaign’s closing days.
The president has long talked about a second term as necessary, for his conseravative base, to block Mr Biden and what he calls a “radical left” agenda from being forced on the entire country. He has spent very little time on the campaign trail making the kinds of bold promises he did four years ago.
Reviving the Covid-crippled economy has been his one consistent vow about a potential second four-year term, as has been putting more federal judges on courts across the country — potentially even a fourth or fifth Trump-nominated Supreme Court justice.
The president has a credible case to make, according to a new survey from The Independent. Forty-five per cent of more than 800 likely voters said he has been “good” for the US economy, according to findings compiled by JL Partners. The same survey puts Mr Biden ahead nationally by 14 points, a 3-point jump in just a few weeks — but the firm’s co-founder, James Johnson, acknowledges “the real fight is in the battleground states”.
Here and there on stage at regional airports, stadium parking lots and small speedways across the country, the president has subtly added to his second-term to-do list.
“This is going to be the most important election in our country's history. So get out and vote,” he said in Allentown. “In my second term I will cut middle class taxes even more. We have a big tax cut [in the works].”
His administration has yet to unveil any details of a tax-cutting plan, however, that would need the backing of enough House Democrats to reach his desk. But such a pledge is standard campaign-trail fare for any GOP presidential candidate. As is this warning about a Democratic opponent: “And sleepy Joe Biden has pledged the biggest tax hike in history”.
Republican insiders see the president continuing to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put conservatives on federal courts because, as one put it this week, “if Trump finds his way to 270 electoral votes, Senate Republicans would probably eke out just enough wins to hold a one-seat or two-seat majority, with [vice president Mike] Pence there to break any ties.”
‘Out of the ditch’
When the upper chamber would not be, as it largely has during Mr Trump’s first term, processing and confirming those judges, another GOP political strategist sees a re-elected Trump focused on the economy.
“The No. 1 thing would be pulling us out of the ditch economically from the pandemic,” Ford O’Connell said this week. “People are out of work. The president knows this, and he wants to fix it. Importantly, his focus would primarily be on the economy of main street.”
The more Mr Trump talks at his airport rallies down the homestretch of the campaign, the more he offers details about a second-term agenda. But, as always, those clues take a backseat to responding to news of the day and taking shots at his Democratic foes.
An example came on Wednesday in Bullhead City, Arizona, a state he won narrowly four years ago and where he now trails Mr Biden by 2.4 percentage points, according to one average of several polls.
“They are just very dishonest people. Very dishonest,” Mr Trump said of professional pollsters and the media after riffing about how incorrect every poll is except his campaign’s internal surveys and ones done by conservative-leaning Rasmussen.
“A vote for me is a vote for massive, middle-class tax cuts, regulation cuts, fair trade, strong borders, and American energy independence,” he told supporters. “It's a vote to support our police, support our military, defend our Second Amendment, which is under siege.”
“Stand up to China, and ensure more products are proudly stamped with that beautiful phrase. You know what the phrase is? ‘Made in the USA,’” the conservative-populist president said to cheers. “We will deliver record prosperity, epic job growth. And a safe vaccine is coming very quickly — you're going to have it momentarily; that eradicates the virus.”
Though that section of the prepared remarks he reads at each campaign tour stop off a TelePrompter seem to please his loyalists, Mr Trump never puts finite timelines on how quickly he intends to deliver each item or how — especially with a Democratic majority in the House that is expected to grow, even if he wins a second term.
One White House aide acknowledged this week that Mr Trump has had a bumpy time getting major legislation through Congress, but said the intention would be to quickly reach a coronavirus economic stimulus deal after Election Day, should the president be re-elected.
‘No intention of compromising’
Another, White House chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, says Trump administration officials do not see a new Covid relief package coming together for some time.
“Our team now believes that the speaker has no intention of compromising on key issues. She is going to hold up key assistance, like the ... small business assistance and unemployment assistance,” he said on Fox News on Thursday, referring to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. “She is stringing us along and basically we think there's virtually no hope for these talks.”
“We have doubted her seriousness in the recent weeks. We've continued to negotiate in good faith,” he claimed. “But, most importantly, they show no evidence of compromising on the very key issues. So we'll perhaps have to wait.”
Ms Pelosi and other top Democrats contend the same about Mr Trump and congressional Republicans, despite the president’s claim he wants a bigger deal than the trillions-dollar one she has proposed. Democrats say the president is making a claim merely to try to court middle-class and senior votes, with an intention to pivot after next Tuesday towards the much smaller package favoured by Senate Republicans.
“We haven't stopped working because the president said it's going to be until after the election. We need to address the health needs and the lives of the American people. We need to put money in people's pockets,” Ms Pelosi said on Wednesday. “And we need to do it as soon as possible. And we must make it retroactive when we do.”
“However, I can only say that, if we're negotiating with the president, then it's up to him to bring aboard the Republican members of the United States Senate, because we're not going to then negotiate with them,” she said of House-Senate talks after she might reach a deal with Mr Trump’s negotiators.
If Mr Trump is re-elected, this round of stalled stimulus talks offers a preview of the next two — and maybe four — years. That’s because he would be doing constant battle with the speaker — via proxy, as the two have not spoken in over a year.
“Given that Democrats will control the House by a pretty comfortable margin, it’s difficult to see anything getting done legislatively over the next four years,” said Mr Manely, the former Senate aide. “I would expect the president to churn out executive orders as he goes about trying to retaliate against his enemies, and I’m talking about abortion rights and targeting companies he doesn’t like — if I’m big tech and he wins, I’d be pretty concerned.”
“But on legislation: Do you mean to tell me Nancy Pelosi’s caucus is going to tell her to cave on a middle-class tax cut?” he added. “And if it’s skewed toward the wealthy, forget about it.”