President Trump plays a round of Golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Nov. 8. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

President Trump plays a round of Golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Nov. 8. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Comment: What Trump’s stubborness means for him, Biden, Senate

Trump’s refusal to concede could hurt himself, Biden and even the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The one serious skill President Trump has is his ability to draw attention from the news media.

That helped him enormously when seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2015 and 2016, then probably hurt him a bit during the general election campaign in 2016. During his presidency, Trump’s ability to draw attention was sort of irrelevant to both governing and to his popularity, given that presidents draw plenty of attention regardless of the person involved, but his quest for it was probably a distraction from better uses of his time.

Now Trump is giving every sign of attempting to maintain his TV ratings during the transition to President-elect Joe Biden. He’s pretending to contest an election that’s not particularly close, with plans to resume rallies to spread false, evidence-free claims of fraud. And he fired — “terminated,” as he described it on Twitter — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday, with rumors swirling about other pointless executions to come.

It’s not clear what effect all of this will have on Biden’s new administration, or on the two important Senate runoff elections in Georgia coming up in January. I don’t want to speculate about future public opinion.

We do know, however, a bit about past public opinion. We know that most outgoing presidents experience at least a modest post-election improvement in their approval ratings measured by public-opinion polls, including defeated presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. It’s easy to imagine why that happens. For defeated presidents, months of attacks from the opposing party are usually replaced by efforts from the president-elect to talk about unity. That’s usually accompanied, for all outgoing presidents whether they were on the ballot or not, by pictures of the incoming president visiting the White House; strong visual evidence of that unifying theme. Just getting an unpopular president such as George W. Bush out of the headlines at the end of his tenure probably leads voters to focus less on the controversies of the day and more on whatever strengths he displayed over the course of a presidency.

The one polling-era president who didn’t get a late bounce (other than Dwight Eisenhower, who was already very popular) was Jimmy Carter, who spent his last 10 weeks haplessly trying to free U.S. hostages in Iran. The hostages were eventually set free just as Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in January, thus robbing Carter of any late-term good news.

Because he is remaining in campaign mode well after the campaign is over, Trump will be evaluated as a candidate, not as a president. That means few if any of those who marginally opposed him will now be prompted to remember what they liked about him. Nor will there be a round of Democrats saying conciliatory things. If he keeps this up, he’ll lose those White House unity photos. That kind of behavior is precisely what helped make Trump — the first president to explicitly begin campaigning for re-election on the day he took office four years ago — also one of the most unpopular presidents ever. So the normal expectation that an outgoing president gains some popularity certainly can’t be assumed when it comes to Trump.

The effect on Biden is harder to predict. On the one hand, part of what produces a presidential honeymoon is that the losing party tends to stay quiet for a while, and often even gives some degree of praise to the newly elected candidate. Biden will be getting less of that than usual. Another part of the honeymoon probably comes from the media portrayal of the president-elect showing him acting decisively to form an administration and an agenda. I’m guessing that coverage of that kind will be crowded out by the Trump effect, which should hurt Biden somewhat.

On the other hand, Biden’s biggest promise is a return to normal politics. It’s certainly possible that Trump’s shenanigans over the remaining transition period will make people even more eager to get rid of him; and that Trump will make Biden look good by comparison, even if we barely see the president-elect.

And without speculating too much on how this will affect the Georgia Senate runoffs, I will say one thing: Biden and the Democrats will be focused on doing their best in those races, while Trump is probably going to be focused primarily on … well, himself. It’s possible he’ll decide that his legacy rests on those contests. It’s also possible that he’ll wind up undercutting the Republican candidates there if they don’t buy into his nonsense about a stolen election. Or by making them feel compelled to talk about fictional voter fraud in Nevada and Pennsylvania while the Democratic candidates talk about the economy and health care and the pandemic and other things that voters care about. Or to put it another way: I strongly suspect that the Republican candidates in Georgia would rather have an election about Biden and what he might do with a Democratic Senate than about whether or not voters like Trump.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Friday, Dec. 4

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 31, 2020, file photo, Washington Army and Air National Guard soldiers confer in an operations room at Camp Murray, Wash. The state of Washington is calling in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grapple with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in aid, officials said Thursday, June 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,File)
Editorial: Take steps to make most of next jobless aid bill

State and federal authorities need to improve delivery of unemployment benefits for covid relief.

FILE - In this May 22, 2019, file photo, Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, fired Krebs, the director of the federal agency that vouched for the reliability of the 2020 election. Trump fired Krebs in a tweet, saying his recent statement defending the security of the election was “highly inaccurate.”  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Comment: Paper ballots prove the election wasn’t hacked

A switch made by key states to provide a paper-ballot record eliminated a hacking weakness.

Harrop: America is letting Trump’s calls go to voice mail

Like much of the rest of America, more GOP officials and companies are moving on from the Trump era.

Comment: Biden building team that looks like people it serves

To showcase that diversity, Biden has introduced them in small groups, emphasizing their talents.

Editorial cartoons for Thursday, Dec. 3

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Macro photo of tooth wheel mechanism with imprinted RECEIVE, GIVE concept words
Editorial: We can meet increased need caused by covid

As GivingTuesday nears, consider how you can help nonprofits with the work they do in your community.

A latte is made at Narrative Coffee on Oct. 4, 2018 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Covid only upped need for Small Business Saturday

Locally owned businesses need your support to survive the pandemic. Here’s how to do so safely.

Tonya Drake is chancellor of WGU Washington. (Courtesy of WGU)
Editorial: Education can build on Native Americans’ heritage

There are obstacles to higher education, but also new opportunities to increase students’ access.

Most Read