Opinion

KOLB: Trump Must Project Reagan’s ‘Soft Power’ To Win 2020 — But It Isn’t Clear He’s Able

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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As he pursues reelection, President Trump extols what he and his administration have accomplished: strongest economy in decades, lowest unemployment in 50 years, highest employment ever for African Americans and Hispanics, a strong military, and initial efforts to build a border wall. Each of these is accurate, although some Trump critics still credit President Obama for the economy.

However you apportion the credit, for any other president these accomplishments would mean approval ratings well above 50 percent and augur well for Trump’s 2020 reelection. So why are Trump’s approval ratings consistently between 42 and 46 percent? This situation should be sounding alarm bells at his reelection headquarters and at The White House. Had Trump been elected with a popular-vote majority and won by greater margins in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, his reelection would be almost certain. At this stage, however, he can’t take anything for granted.

As a lifelong real-estate dealmaker, Trump is skilled in the art of the tangible: hire an architect, secure a loan, build a building, get rich. Rinse and repeat. He often appears uncomfortable with the more intangible aspects of presidential power that don’t rely on coercion (trade, immigration) or bullying (the Federal Reserve). Instead of persuasion, incentives, or inspiration, Trump often browbeats.

While the Democrats lurch dangerously left, Trump may be fumbling his reelection when it comes to how he handles the important intangible aspects of presidential leadership, what Harvard’s Joseph Nye has long called “soft power.” Trump seems to believe that his political base cares only about achieving hard results on immigration and the economy and not “squishy” issues such as strengthening global alliances, securing elections, or improving the environment. His carefully stage-managed campaign rallies reinforce that thinking.

To win in 2020, however, Trump must reach well beyond his base and capture enough moderate and independent voters to guarantee an Electoral College victory. The GOP’s 2020 campaign map will be all about identifying, persuading, and motivating these voters. These swing voters are unlikely to react the same way as Trump’s loyal base; they may well be influenced more by soft-power considerations.

Compare Trump with Ronald Reagan, whose skills and experience were the opposite of Trump’s. As an actor, Reagan read scripts and translated those words into feelings, emotions, and images on a movie screen. Reagan’s skill was the art of the intangible, the art of nuance. As president, Reagan expanded American military power and projected strength. He could be tough (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), but he was also an effective consoler-in-chief, as the nation saw when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. Reagan’s softer side, along with his self-deprecating sense of humor, effectively disarmed many of his opponents. “Soft power” does not imply weakness; the word “power” is also part of that equation.

“Make America Great Again” is to Donald Trump what “Morning in America” was to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. Trump’s campaign slogan reflects a builder’s concrete, tangible desire to “make” something. Reagan’s slogan reflects an actor’s evocation of an intangible patriotic vision, an emotional, upbeat, optimistic feeling about America’s future. Reagan understood that Americans are doers and dreamers and that our greatness stems from those twin aspects of our national character.

Many American leaders have extolled American greatness, and some have even invoked American “exceptionalism” given the circumstances of our founding and the 18th century ideals reflected in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. But it’s important to note that it’s been almost 75 years since America won a major war. We project military might, but our real strength has been in how we deploy those intangible American ideals and values that we celebrate every July 4.

American greatness in the 20th century’s second half was the result of forward-looking “soft power” investments like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt much of Western Europe and ensured overseas markets for American manufacturers; the GI Bill that enabled millions of our servicemen and women to obtain postsecondary education; a system of national highways that facilitated nationwide commerce; a space program that landed men on the moon; and defense-technology investments that led to today’s internet.

Can Trump modulate his own hard-wired, hard-power experiences and temptations to project the inspirational soft-power side of the American presidency? We’ll see. He can keep Tweeting all he likes, but he should tone down the stridency and ratchet up the empathy. Trump needs to recognize that Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” inspired more Americans than refrains of “lock her up.”

Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.