Trump delivers his second State of the Union with his political prospects looking grim

  • The Trump White House can take comfort in the identity of the one recent predecessor with lower approval ratings before his third-year State of the Union.
  • That was Ronald Reagan, who a year later had recovered so robustly that he won 49 states in his landslide re-election victory.
  • But profound differences in their circumstances make it exceedingly improbable Trump can engineer a comparable turnaround.

The state of American politics is sliding away from President Trump.

He heads into tonight's State of the Union address in historically precarious condition. Just four in 10 Americans approve his handling of the job; nearly six in 10 disapprove and, more than that, tell the Washington Post/ABC News Poll they won't even consider supporting his re-election.

The White House can take comfort in the identity of the one recent predecessor with lower approval before his third-year State of the Union. That was Ronald Reagan, who a year later had recovered so robustly that he won 49 states in his landslide re-election victory.

But profound differences in their circumstances make it exceedingly improbable Trump can engineer a comparable turnaround – despite surface similarities to an earlier Republican president who faced a Democratic House while holding a Senate GOP majority.

Most Americans liked Reagan personally even when they disliked his presidential decisions. When his job approval slipped below 40 percent during the 1982 recession, the Gallup Poll showed, 60 percent still held a favorable personal view.

By contrast, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Trump's personal favorability has never reached even 50 percent. Neither has Trump's job approval, despite a robust job market and solid economic growth.

The economic trajectory of Trump's early presidency also diverges sharply from Reagan's. The 1982 recession brought Reagan's popularity down, and helped Democrats gain 26 House seats.

Then the 1983 recovery lifted it back up. When the Gipper addressed Congress in his third year, the economy was beginning its "Morning in America" run of six consecutive quarters of 5 percent-plus growth and six more of 3 percent-plus after that.

Today, the economy has already begun slowing as Trump moves toward his re-election year. In 2018, Democrats gained 40 seats and control of the chamber despite second-quarter growth of 4.2 percent and 3.4 percent third quarter growth.

The Congressional Budget Office now projects growth below 3 percent this year, and below 2 percent during 2020 as the stimulus from deficit-financed tax cuts winds down. Predictions of recession by the end of 2020 have grown commonplace.

Reagan retained enough ability to work across party lines that in early 1983 he struck a bipartisan deal with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill to shore up the finances of Social Security. Likewise, White House aides say Trump's speech tonight will invoke national unity and call for bipartisan cooperation on immigration, infrastructure, drug prices and trade.

Trump's record suggests minimal chances for success. And recent blows he has suffered from both parties indicate declining influence on both sides of the Capitol.

The president's relentless focus on reinforcing his base of blue-collar whites leaves him bereft of goodwill among more diverse and upscale Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, backed by a unified Democratic caucus, rebuffed his border wall demands and made him surrender with only diminished poll numbers to show for it.

Trump, warning that immigrants bring crime, drugs and disease flooding across America's southern border, threatens to invoke emergency powers that would let him to build a wall without Congress. But Senate Republicans caution they may join Democrats in opposing that legally controversial step.

Shaken by the exit of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Senate Republicans defied the White House to express disapproval of Trump's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The GOP's opposition to domestic spending dims prospects for a big infrastructure plan; its preference for market forces casts doubt on a deal for new pharmaceutical industry price constraints.

Trump vows to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement that Reagan initiated to pressure Congress into passing the modestly revised version he negotiated with Canada and Mexico. But his wall back-down to Pelosi, and negative market reaction to trade disruptions, have diminished the credibility his tough talk.

A bewildering array of investigations – by special counsel Robert Mueller, other federal prosecutors, the New York attorney general, both chambers of Congress – may soon overwhelm everything else in Washington. They point in a common direction: toward the growing possibility of impeachment by the House.

If that happens, Trump would need support from at least 34 of the GOP senators in tonight's audience to remain in office. He'd likely get it, but the gathering state of Republicans' 2020 peril introduces a measure of doubt.

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