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After a rocky weekend, the rituals of the White House bolster Donald Trump

After a rocky weekend, the rituals of the White House bolster Donald Trump
President Trump listens as Doug McCarron of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters compliments his inaugural address during a White House meeting Monday. (Getty Images)

After a shaky few days, the rituals of the presidency worked on Monday to bolster President Trump, establishing a sense of normalcy rarely seen since he announced his unorthodox campaign for the White House in 2015.

Trump began his first full weekday in office by meeting with business leaders in the White House about manufacturing as television cameras recorded the moment. He signed an order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, keeping a campaign promise even if the action was mostly symbolic since the agreement was already effectively dead in Congress.

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He gathered labor leaders to his side, reaching out to a group that has been a bulwark of Democratic politics; later he met with congressional leaders — including some in his own party for whom he was not the first option as president.

It was routine for a president — and that was the point. Video of the meetings made Trump seem both magnanimous and in charge, even if it was not clear how long Monday's righting of the ship would last. (Indeed, in a private meeting with congressional leaders Monday night, he falsely claimed that he'd lost the popular vote because millions of "illegals" voted, according to a congressional aide.)

Much of Monday contrasted sharply with Trump's first days in office, which had been marked by controversy and confusion.

At his inauguration on Friday, Trump scorned leaders of both parties in an address that darkly exaggerated many of the problems facing the country and did little to appeal to the majority of the country that had not voted for him.

On Saturday, angered by coverage of his inauguration — and especially the emphasis on his audience being smaller than President Obama's — he issued a series of complaints, including several untrue statements, during a speech at CIA headquarters. The visit was meant to smooth over frosty relations with some in the intelligence community, but the use of the setting for a political speech made Trump look less focused on them than on perceived slights.

The notion that regular meetings at the White House could give Trump a means to improve his image comes as something of an irony, for the new president came to Washington intent on bashing typical goings-on and taking on the establishment in both parties.

Yet Monday's events found Trump for the first time as president publicly back in his comfort zone. He presided over sessions in the White House's Roosevelt Room as if he were back in a corporate suite or on the similarly-staged set of NBC's "The Apprentice," in which Trump starred as the host surrounded by supplicants seeking his good will.

This time, the supplicants were titans of business, leaders of organized labor and, later in the day, members of Congress.

Being seen taking part in the rituals of a work day is important for several reasons: Trump's opponents have worked to portray him as unhinged, capable of plunging the nation into an international crisis at any turn. But Monday's images — if sustained — could begin to counter that view, particularly as Americans see him preaching the mom-and-apple-pie imperatives of creating more blue-collar employment.

"We're going to put a lot of people back to work, we're going to use common sense, and we're going to do it the way it's supposed to be done," Trump said during the labor meeting, which was televised.

"We're going to stop the ridiculous trade deals that have taken everybody out of our country and taken companies out of our country, and it's going to be reversed. I think you're going to have a lot of companies come back to our country."

That was the same message Trump had offered every day of his campaign, but this time it was uttered in measured — presidential, even — tones.

Media studies have shown that visuals register more strongly than the spoken or written word; viewers — which means voters — are captivated by what they see and tend to ignore what they hear. To the extent that holds true, Monday's pictures helped to offset any recounting of Trump's calamity-filled weekend.

Particularly for those making the turn from celebrity to chief executive, simply being seen performing the job can make the officeholder seem more normal. That has been true with a host of figures from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former movie star, to Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota senator and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian.

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"People watch TV news in small segments…. To see the guy being president, to see the guy being governor, that's reassuring," said Stu Spencer, who worked for several Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan. He noted that for the same reason, presidents who take time off to campaign often see their popularity fall.

In Trump's case, the work day was meant to show him as "a listening president who is engaged in trying … to make people's lives better," as his spokesman, Sean Spicer, described him in a Monday afternoon briefing. That is decidedly not the same as campaign Trump, who spent most of his time in one-way communication, delivering angry speeches to his large and enthusiastic audiences.

While Monday was a day of symbolism for Trump, it did not deliver surprises. Much of what Trump has done in the first few days has simply undone what President Obama did in his first few days.

In his third full day in office, for example, Obama had lifted a ban on U.S. support for international organizations that provide abortion services, a measure first instituted in 1984 by President Reagan. On his third full day in office Monday, Trump reversed Obama's reversal, putting the ban back in effect.

The meetings with business leaders and labor — and Trump's abandonment of the Pacific trade agreement, a move that he cast as putting American jobs first — were similar to early steps taken by Obama, who came into office facing more dire economic difficulties and a cratering labor market.

The focus on the economy is smart politically. Trump inherited an economy that has steadily improved and an unemployment rate that has dropped substantially. Yet the swiftness of the past economic decline and the unevenness of the recovery has left many Americans fearful and pessimistic, particularly in the industrial states where Trump sealed his victory in November.

That has only heightened the need for Trump to be seen, as he was Monday, as focusing on economic matters.

Trump also must present himself as a man of action because he lacks the rhetorical gifts of his predecessor.

"Here's the thing that I think is going to be very different [about] this president: It's going to be about action and success," Spicer said at a press briefing last week, when asked about Trump's inaugural address. "And he's going to be judged a lot more on his action and success than sort of soaring rhetoric."

Yet Obama's first few days also provide a reminder that judging whether a president's actions will prove successful takes time.

On his second day in office, Obama signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, a measure hailed by human rights advocates and diplomats.

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As he left office Friday, nearly eight years later, Guantanamo was much reduced, but still open, a stubborn reminder that the desires in the early days of an administration can be frustratingly difficult to translate into reality.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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