Over the past week, President Donald Trump has pulled out all the stops to seize the upper hand in the ongoing government shutdown fight. He’s made his case in a prime-time Oval Office address. He’s flown to McAllen, Texas, the site of his much desired border wall — where he met with border patrol agents and vowed, “The buck stops with everybody.” He called a meeting with top Democratic lawmakers, only to subsequently leave that meeting in a huff, declaring it to be “a waste of time.”
All in all, Trump’s week has been brash, extravagant, and unpredictable. In other words, right in his reality-television wheelhouse. And yet none of it has done much to move the needle in his favor in a significant way.
Who would have thought that a dyed-in-the-wool bully couldn’t make the best use of the bully pulpit? Well, if you’ve been following politics for longer than the past week, you’d already know what Trump is, perhaps, beginning to learn: The powers of presidential persuasion are vastly overrated.
This was only underscored by the slew of headlines that hit over the weekend, mostly full of bad news, reflected in the most recent slate of public opinion surveys on the White House’s position on the government shutdown.
While Republicans seem to be consolidating their support for the border wall, leading to some of the best numbers yet in support of Trump’s signature campaign promise, those same polls nevertheless show that majorities of respondents still oppose the wall. The Washington Post-ABC News and CNN found over 50 percent of respondents blamed some combination of Trump and Republican legislators for the partial shutdown, with the CNN poll also reporting a precipitous drop in the president’s approval rating.
Perhaps the most distressing news for the president came in the CNN poll, which for the first time found upside-down support for the president among whites without college degrees — 45 percent approval, compared to 47 percent disapproval — with even those among this cohort who said they supported the border wall “tilt[ing] toward blaming the president for the shutdown.”
Considering that Trump has been attempting to make presidential stagecraft work for him for some time, it’s perhaps not surprising that he has reportedly taken a rather dim view of his own plans to turn the debate in his favor.
As the New York Times’ Peter Baker reported last Tuesday, Trump “privately…dismissed his own new strategy as pointless” in an off-the-record chat with news anchors mere hours before he addressed the nation from behind the Resolute Desk.
The media agreed. Over the weekend, the Associated Press assessed Trump’s attempt to persuade the nation of a supposed urgent crisis at the southern border and declared, “In a moment of deep political divisions… the presidential megaphone does not seem to hold the power it once did.”
But as presidential historian and author of On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit George Edwards might caution, it’s always been this way — despite our most gauzy memories of, say, the magic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” As Ezra Klein, recalling Edwards for the New Yorker in 2012, wrote:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats are perhaps the most frequently cited example of Presidential persuasion. Cue Edwards: “He gave only two or three fireside chats a year, and rarely did he focus them on legislation under consideration in Congress. It appears that FDR only used a fireside chat to discuss such matters on four occasions, the clearest example being the broadcast on March 9, 1937, on the ill-fated ‘Court-packing’ bill.” Edwards also quotes the political scientists Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell, who, in a more systematic examination of Roosevelt’s radio addresses, found that they fostered “less than a 1 percentage point increase” in his approval rating. His more traditional speeches didn’t do any better. He was unable to persuade Americans to enter the Second World War, for example, until Pearl Harbor.
And as political scientist John Sides pointed out in a lengthy treatise on the limits of presidential stagecraft, Edwards told this same story again and again:
Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy either. Take the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan. In “The Strategic President,” George Edwards shows that Reagan could not move opinion on signature issues like aid to the Contras. And Reagan’s advocacy for increased defense spending was soon followed by a decrease in support for additional defense spending. Public opinion on government spending often moves in the opposite direction as presidential preferences and government policy.
If Trump is indeed starting to feel as if his government shutdown/border wall performance art is “pointless,” then he’s perhaps learning a hard lesson that his Oval Office forebears had to learn themselves — the powers of the bully pulpit are overrated. As Sides has noted, “What presidents can do, Edwards argues, is ‘facilitate’ change in favorable environments” — which often amounts to nothing more than the president being able to successfully seal the deal on matters that already have broad public support.
As it stands, however, neither the border wall nor the government shutdown currently has that necessary broad public support, so that “favorable environment” doesn’t really exist.
Trump would probably be best served to end the government shutdown and use his perch to either make the issue of the border wall more salient for voters outside of his base of devotees, or to signal to Democrats the areas in which he is prepared to enter into negotiations.
But even here, problems abound. With Republicans coming home to support the border wall, the favorable turn of those polling numbers might inspire the White House to continue to drag out the shutdown. And as far as the realistic possibility of negotiations goes, the White House did not likely enter into this fight to offer immigration-related concessions to Democrats in return for wall funding. At any rate, with Trump and his GOP allies taking the larger share of the blame for the shutdown, there’s no real incentive among Democrats to bargain away anything.
Beyond all that, the larger problem with resolving this impasse is that the border wall seems to have never been intended as a material thing to be funded and constructed. As the New York Times reported at the start of the year, the wall took on a special importance with the Trump campaign because it served as a useful “memory trick,” a “mnemonic device” to help ensure that Trump would reliably pepper his public appearances with anti-immigrant content. In fact, that same report goes on to note that “immigration hard-liners,” at this late date, are actually fearful of the possibility that the shutdown might get resolved through negotiations in which the president cuts “a deal that trades a relatively ineffectual measure for major concessions on immigration.”
“It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” Trump said this week, referring to his trip to the border. It’s hard to see how the president is going to muster the power to persuade anybody else having so clearly failed to persuade himself.