Analysis

Trump leaves the White House bubble and shifts to campaign mode, hoping for momentum

As his month-old administration struggles to make good on its promises, President Trump is seeking momentum by using some of the tactics that propelled his candidacy from its beginnings.

On Thursday, he held a free-for-all news conference in which he sparred with reporters and defended his short tenure for almost 80 minutes. On Friday, he traveled to South Carolina for a markedly upbeat campaign-style speech at a Boeing manufacturing plant where he pledged that “I will never, ever disappoint you, believe me.”

On Saturday, Trump is scheduled to hold a rally in Florida — this one paid for by his campaign committee, White House officials say.

With both the news conference and the rallies, Trump is trying to magnify one of the chief advantages of any president, and particularly one who came into office as a celebrity: his ability to burst out of the presidential bubble and speak uninterrupted to his sea of dedicated supporters.

The sudden change of pace acknowledges the central truth of his campaign and his presidency: Despite the layers of support that envelop any president, Trump is most visibly comfortable when he’s the one selling himself.

Already, he described his weekend rally in much the same way he approached his campaign events, as sold-out affairs that prove his popularity.

“The crowds are massive that want to be there,” Trump said Thursday. 

Earlier, he said, “I hear the tickets, you can’t get ’em. … It’s gonna be great. I look forward to that.”

The transition from candidate to president can be daunting for anyone, much less a first-time politician who, in his former life, was surrounded by doting family members and a coterie of aides whose professional lives were dependent on him.

In neither his New York development career nor his television reality show sideline was Trump constantly confronted by entities that could curb his power, like the judges who so far have confounded the rollout of his immigration and refugee plan. Nor in his pre-political days did he have to regularly face his unpopularity, evident in polls showing him to have the lowest job approval at this point in his tenure of any president in modern times.

For Trump, moving into the Oval Office meant leaving behind the ego-stroking mechanics of a campaign for the nitty-gritty of governing. And in his case, that adjustment is being made by a president who seems far needier of frequent praise than most. 

Trump is a man of fixed habits, preferring his homes to hotels when he’s on the road. For him, campaign rallies served as a familiar nest, the rock music and opera solos blaring, the red “Make America Great Again” hats bobbing, the shouts of “Lock her up” aimed at Hillary Clinton and the derision leveled against the media.

There he could indulge in long soliloquies and hop from topic to topic, keeping the attention of his audience no matter what he said. The protesters who occasionally showed up became part of the show, giving Trump the chance to talk tough and tout the slogans his crowds had come to hear.

The White House, by contrast, has represented almost a solid month of captivity in an unfamiliar bubble lacking much of that sort of adulation. Sober policy discussions and standard-issue grip-and-grin signing ceremonies are muted replacements for the chanting crowds.

The return to theatrics, at the Florida rally particularly, seems destined not only to thrill Trump’s fans, but also to offer political benefit.

For both Trump and the audience, it will be visible evidence of the 46% of voters  who backed the Republican for president — a number that may have dropped a bit since November but remains large and fervent.

For his opponents, it will be a reminder of his ability to harness passion in his supporters, the same passion that enabled him to win several states thought to be locks for Clinton.

“It’s an affirmation when crowds are that big and cheering,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who advised Trump last year. “I’m sure that he enjoys getting out of the bubble. It’s a very wise move to let him go out and talk to people.”

Bennett noted that Trump seemed to benefit last year not just from the support of giant crowds but from privately meeting individual Americans before those larger gatherings.

“He has one of the best political ears of anyone you’ve ever met. Here’s a guy who lives on Fifth Avenue who totally got the struggle of the steelworkers in the Mahoning Valley and could speak to them on an emotional level,” Bennett said, crediting that in part to “tons of meetings backstage” where Trump heard personal stories.

The downside to jumping back into campaign mode is that it can substitute one kind of bubble with another — one that reinforces Trump’s instinct to play to his supporters and exclude the majority of Americans.

That is not a healthy place to be long-term.

A Pew Research Center survey released this week showed that 84% of Republicans approved of the job Trump is doing as president, roughly in line with the support other presidents have gotten from their own party.

But Trump ranked far lower when it came to attracting the opposing party. Among Democrats, only 8% gave him a positive rating. For other presidents since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, at least 30% of the opposing party’s voters have approved of the president at this point in his term.

As worrisome for Trump is the vehemence of the opposition. Overall, 56% disapproved of the job he’s done so far, and 46% described that opposition as strongly felt, according to the Pew poll. Only 29% strongly approved of his presidency.

Hardened sentiment is difficult to change under any circumstances, but particularly when the divisive tactics of the campaign continue unabated.

In his Thursday news conference, Trump repeatedly went out of his way to go after Clinton, emblematic of a remarkably resilient grudge against the losing candidate. And at more length than ever, he went after the news media that he sees as an opposition party.

Both had also been his targets in the campaign, and he has given no sign of changing his approach in his new job.

He was at times defiant, a tone that he also will take Saturday if scores of earlier campaign rallies offer any prediction.

“That’s how I won,” he told reporters at one point Thursday. “I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn't win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure.”

For more on politics »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with reporting from Trump’s rally in South Carolina.

The article was originally published at 9:25 a.m.

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