Donald Trump’s bubble presidency – POLITICO
When President Barack Obama felt he needed to show off his common touch, he’d go for cheeseburgers at Ray’s Hell Burger — where he treated the Russian president to an onion-jalapeño-and-mushroom-topped patty — or to Five Guys, where he ordered burgers for his staff in front of gawking lunchtime diners in May 2009.
President Donald Trump’s decision to stick to the restaurant inside his Pennsylvania Avenue property two blocks from the White House underscores his deep and growing isolation.
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In his 14 months as president, Trump hasn’t yet followed his predecessors’ habit of dropping by local watering holes (even though he’s made no secret of his love for junk food) or public service events either at home or on the road. He hasn’t gone to a baseball game or stopped at a soup kitchen. On Saturday, he ventured out of the White House to attend the annual Gridiron Dinner, taking a baby step into Washington’s elite social scene. But his appearance at the white-tie event did little to bring him closer to ordinary Americans.
Outside Washington, Trump follows a careful routine of visiting factories or local law enforcement headquarters. When he stopped recently in Parkland, Florida, on his way to Mar-a-Lago, he took a smiling photo with a girl who had been shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a sharp contrast to images of Obama sitting in a small room with his head in his hands grieving with the parents of first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Trump promised the night of his victory to govern on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.” Yet as president, he rarely comes into contact with regular people except in the structured setting of the White House or during tightly orchestrated events set up by staff, including a West Wing listening session last month with Stoneman Douglas families that featured some attendees who were critical of his proposals. His announcement last week of new tariffs, the timing of which surprised even some senior staffers, came at a table packed with industry executives rather than at a Rust Belt steel mill.
Trump has always been more of an executive-in-chief than a uniter-in-chief. He has persisted in the habits of a celebrity, positioning himself as someone whose lifestyle is just a bit out of reach. His mingling happens chiefly at his private clubs in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia, where he is not walled off by the Secret Service.
It’s another way that Trump has obliterated the norms of the presidency, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former White House officials, Trump friends and close advisers. Rather than trying to project an air of accessibility, Trump has unapologetically stuck to his insular White House life, avoiding and more or less eliminating the optics of the president appearing in public as a citizen.
The approach keeps Trump in his comfort zone but makes it harder for him to do the work of being president — both when it comes to bridging divides on polarizing issues like immigration and selling highly partisan victories like his December tax reform legislation. And in recent weeks, Trump’s growing paranoia and profound frustration with his staff have further isolated him, according to aides, who describe the president as deeply unpredictable and increasingly unwilling to listen to many of his top advisers.
“President Trump has never lived a governing life before the White House. When you lead an institution and you have to govern, you create a climate of invitation. You invite people to be part of the initiative rather than dictate,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “If you come from the background of running a private company without a challenging board of directors or shareholders, that is much different than having to build coalitions. That has been a challenge for him.”
Bush spent about six weeks visiting different states following one State of the Union to pump up support for his policy to-do list, like the No Child Left Behind Law and tax cuts, Card said. Obama similarly traveled to promote the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus plan, and was often photographed sitting down for one-on-one conversations with people he’d traveled to meet.
While several aides and outside advisers counseled Trump to embark on a similar post-State of the Union roadshow, he delivered just one speech outside the White House in the immediate aftermath of his address to Congress, appearing alongside workers at an Ohio manufacturing plant in early February.
Unlike other presidents, Trump was famous for decades in private life before entering political life. Aside from attending events, he was rarely seen out in New York except at haunts like the 21 Club, preferring to stay at Trump Tower and order in from its grill restaurant.
As president, Trump has traveled often: A POLITICO analysis of Trump’s domestic trips in his first year shows that he’s kept par with Obama. As of mid-February, Trump had taken 44 domestic trips, excluding jaunts to his own properties and stops in the greater Washington area, while Obama took 43 trips during the equivalent period after taking office.
But, following a habit established during the campaign, when Trump would often take late-night flights back to New York rather than stay overnight out in the country, the president has stayed only once overnight domestically at a place he doesn’t own or operate — at an Omni resort in Phoenix, after holding a rally there.
And he has largely avoided visits to key blue states that supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Over the past 13 months, he has visited just seven states he didn’t carry in the election, four of which (Virginia, New Jersey, Hawaii and New York) are home to properties he or his family owns and another, Maryland, that is close to the White House and is a must-visit state for all presidents because both Joint Base Andrews and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are located there. Obama visited six states he didn’t win in the 2008 election during the same period.
Trump’s White House is only now planning a trip to California, the most populous state in the country and one that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s economy — a seeming must-stop for a president obsessed with his economic legacy, as well as his legitimacy as an elected leader.
Advisers largely have urged him to avoid visiting blue states because they consider it a waste of time, according to one former campaign official and two close White House advisers.
“I’ve told the president to stay away from California. It’s a hostile place for an American to go,” said one former campaign official. “All you have are elected officials that will just try to upstage you, and it doesn’t serve the public good to get into silly little fights with local politicians.”
With the constant pressure of the Russia investigations and the roller coaster of chaos in the West Wing, Trump has also come to view his presidency as something closer to a four-year-long cage match than an exercise in governing. Many of his close aides have adopted and reinforced that attitude as well.
“There is a lot of staff from the campaign that still holds grudges against members of Congress, because they feel like the lawmakers did not support Trump enough during the campaign,” said one former White House official. That’s led staffers, in some cases, to nix or advocate against trips to certain congressional districts as punishment — further reinforcing Trump’s bubble mentality.
The Trump administration also lacks a big-picture thinker in a high-level position to move the White House beyond its daily battles and to help staffers think strategically about the best way to approach the midterms, notch legislative wins or map out agenda items, according to current and former White House officials.
“They don’t have a Karl Rove or Barry Jackson, who can say, ‘Hey, you just pitched these ideas. Here’s how we can make them happen,’” said one former White House official, referring to two top George W. Bush advisers. “It is one thing to the next, and White House staffers all have their own fiefdoms.”