“Four years ago, I pledged to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., I was successful there, and those American workers will return to their jobs once the governors allow them to. I promised we would build a wall between the United States and Mexico. We are now doing that. I’ve gotten tougher in our trade deals with China and have taken back the ridiculous gifts Barack Obama foolishly gave to the Iranians. I’ve protected Social Security and Medicare. I won the largest tax cuts in our glorious nation’s history.
“I expected all of this to take eight years. We did it in four, delivering ahead of schedule. I have made America great again. America is great. I have done it after decades of decline and decay. With this important victory, tonight I announce that I will not stand for re-election for President of the United States in November. There is no need. I, Donald J. Trump, have achieved all that you elected me to do.”
There is no reason to believe that President Donald J. Trump will ever deliver such words or that he would even consider making such an address. But if current events and U.S. history teach us anything, it is that such an approach may be just what both Trump and the nation need right now.
If we have learned anything over the past four years (and well earlier than that, if we look to everything from the NYC tabloids to The Apprentice TV show), it is that Trump considers himself a winner. He is a self-declared American success story, one who has achieved everything he set out to do and has never failed at any task. Declaring “mission accomplished” allows Trump to make clear that he made good on the promises he set forth on in 2016, when he took a job he regularly told people he didn’t actually want.
We’ve also know Trump hates to lose, be it at construction, casino gaming, politics, or even golf. The latest public opinion polling show that the President is in a precarious position with the American people, as his polling numbers continue to hover in the mid-40s, he is starting to struggle with key constituencies (including senior citizens in Florida), and he is now hip-deep in morass of social issues that can bring down even the most successful of executives.
So it makes perfect sense for Trump to declare victory today, walking away from the White House as a “winner” who has nothing left to prove to the nation and nothing more to add to his legacy. And he wouldn’t be the first president to do so under challenging times of public unrest or unpopularity.
In 1844, James K. Polk declared, if elected, he would only serve one term as President of the United States. True to his word, he didn’t stand for reelection four years later, declaring he had achieved all four of his goals — tariff reduction, restoring an independent treasury, annexation of Oregon, and the acquisition of California.
After assuming the presidency in 1881 after the death of James Garfield, Chester Arthur did not seek a second term as POTUS either, deeming the passage of the Pendleton Act (addressing patronage and civil service reforms) as his legacy.
Calvin Coolidge declared he, too, would be a one-term president by choice, sharing with members of the media a written statement that simply read, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” That’s got a very “you’re fired” sense to it, too.
And in the face of growing public concern about the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson also ultimately chose not to run for re-election in 1968, only a few years muscling the Civil Rights Act through Congress. He made that decision on national TV on March 31, 1968.
Since then, we expect that every U.S. president is going to seek a second term in office. Richard Nixon did it successfully (though he didn’t get to finish that second term). Jimmy Carter tried, as did George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all successfully served two full terms as POTUS, posting stronger wins when they stood for re-election.
If anything is certain, it is that the future of the President of the United States and this very nation is uncertain. The fall presidential campaign will likely occur in an environment with growing calls to address the racial divide that has grown more and more raw in the past few weeks. We expect to see a new wave of coronavirus cases that could shut down entire states again. And continued trade and political wars with China are likely to only gain in speed and substance.
The winner in November will be left to knit together all of those issues into a coherent domestic and foreign policy tapestry. Should Trump win re-election (which is a mighty big IF at this moment), the President also faces the likelihood of a second round of impeachment proceedings from a U.S. House of Representatives with a stronger bench of elected Democrats, and the potential of a trial in a U.S. Senate that may return to Democratic control.
This would be Trump’s prize, and it would be one that few politicians would ever want to win. And he gets the added bonus of being a lame duck as soon as he is sworn in, with Democratic 2024 presidential contenders attacking him from day one, as the next wave of GOP leaders seek to position themselves as the future of the party.
By declaring victory now, President Trump is able to go out on his terms, in his way. He leaves the White House a self-declared winner, knowing that four more years might deny him such a title. Moreover, Trump gets to leave it to others to carry the mantel of the “Trump Republicans,” to ensure that those “Make America Great Again” wins are protected and that those priorities remain emphasized. And should those others fail to defeat expected Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in November, the loss will be on them and them alone. President Trump will have handed them a book of wins and a blueprint for success. As Trump’s “apprentice,” the GOP nominee will own the loss and will be blamed for failing to protect all that American greatness.
Just because we expect every President to run for re-election it doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Stepping aside while still on top, and with the ability to write the history, would be a very Trumpian thing to do. And doing so now, just five months before the election, would allow Trump to personally select his successor, single-handedly choosing the GOP nominee for coronation at an in-person convention in a southern city to be named later. It is the ultimate embrace of the Art of the Deal.