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The bleak presidential portrait painted by the media keeps getting darker:
Donald Trump is spinning out of control, calling the Mueller probe unconstitutional, claiming he can pardon himself, embracing a lawyer who says he could shoot Jim Comey and not be indicted. He is slapping tariffs on allies and launching a global trade war. He couldn’t welcome the Super Bowl champs to the White House without being divisive. He is at war with a porn star. He is accusing the press of a disinformation campaign. He insulted Canada without even knowing the details of the War of 1812.
And Time’s cover portrays him as a lordly king, besotted by “visions of absolute power.”
So how is it that Trump’s approval rating has bounced back to 45 percent in the new Fox News poll, and 44 percent in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll?
While that’s not a fabulous number, it’s roughly where Barack Obama was for several years, and hardly the statistic you’d expect from someone on the verge of political oblivion.
One obvious answer is the economy, stupid. We are at 3.8 percent unemployment, matching the lowest number in decades. And more than half in the Fox poll approve of Trump’s handling of the economy.
But it goes deeper than that. Much of the public simply isn’t breathlessly following all the scandal stuff and controversies and flap-of-the-day flareups the way the press corps is. Many voters shrug off his provocations and exaggerations because they think he is delivering for them on kitchen-table issues and like his economic warfare against China. Trump has also consolidated his Republican support to a remarkable degree; except for some contrarian lawmakers and conservative pundits, he is the GOP.
After more than 16 months in office, despite the media’s hair-on-fire approach, the country is growing more accustomed to his reality-show style. Things that once would have been explosive—he dictated the denial involving the Trump Tower meeting after his aides denied it!—now barely last a news cycle. He has changed the game.
As Rich Lowry puts it in Politico, “Trump seems a little less exotic…His zaniness isn’t as strange or threatening as it seemed at the outset. Trump’s tweets have gone from unprecedented use and abuse of the bully pulpit to something like the wallpaper of our national political debate.”
Now the Journal/NBC poll does contain some warning signs. By a 25-point margin, voters say they’re more likely to back congressional candidates who serve as a check on Trump. Fifty percent of those surveyed saying they want a Democratic-controlled Congress, with 40 percent wanting the GOP to remain in charge.
But I’m always wary of such national figures when these are ultimately local races, and only competitive in some districts. The pundits who once saw a blue tsunami coming are now not so sure that Trump will cost the Republicans the House.
And with the president heading this weekend to Singapore, liberal New York Times columnist Nick Kristof says this:
“Sadly, Democrats in Congress are responding in a quite Trumpian way: They seem more concerned with undermining him than supporting a peace process with North Korea …
“Trump’s newfound pragmatism is infinitely preferable to the threat of nuclear war that used to hang over all of us, so it’s mystifying to see Democrats carping about any possible North Korea deal.”
Kristof, who previously criticized “smug liberals” like himself for knee-jerk opposition to everything Trump does, has a point.
It’s not that the president, who has been busy lowering expectations for the Kim meeting, is going to instantly strike a deal.
But he no longer appears the warmonger that critics say is recklessly taking the country to nuclear war.
None of this means that Trump’s polls can’t slide if he makes mistakes or the Russia probe takes a menacing turn. But there is a yawning gap between his actual support and the media’s portrayal of an embattled and unpopular president.