Presidencies sometimes have turning points. Perhaps the starkest one was 16 years ago Monday, when the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, transformed the presidency of George W. Bush. Donald Trump’s time in office has so far been characterized by the absence of such moments, despite major events that seem like they should upend normal political operations.
This is not for lack of effort on the part of some media observers, who desperately wish for some sign that Trump knows where he is or what his job means. The most recent round of this comes in the form of various articles about how Trump’s debt ceiling deal with Democratic leaders means he’s been an independent all along.
But these are the facts on the ground. Trump has enjoyed consistent support from congressional Republicans, and he is unpopular with Democratic elites and voters alike. Is the debt ceiling agreement likely to change this?
Recent presidents besides Bush have had turning points in their presidencies. Bill Clinton’s evolution is harder to pinpoint, but his early White House chaos eventually gave way to a more functional and successful presidency. As for Barack Obama, I think we are still too close to say, though I agree with Jamelle Bouie that Obama’s turning point — almost certainly unintentional — came during a press conference in which he said the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police “acted stupidly” in the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates.
These moments may not have much in common, but it’s clear what they are not: fundamental shifts in the president-party relationship. The 9/11 attacks reordered political priorities and gave purpose to a presidency with an erstwhile meandering agenda. Clinton’s evolution can be likened to a professionalization — to the kind of shift that occurs as a president gains on-the-job training. For Obama, the “beer summit” marks the end of the dream of post-racial America or a transracial presidency (not that the dream was ever very realistic). Presidents can pivot on their priorities, their White House management, or their public image. Often those pivots are at least partially done for them. But the president-party relationship is structural, and harder for presidents to just alter.
But Trump is completely upending the two-party system by pushing for upper-class tax cuts! What Republican would do that?