President Trump’s campaign rally last weekend — just a month into his presidency — has renewed attention to the tensions between presidential campaigning and governing. Travel early in a president’s term is not novel. But holding what the White House press secretary explicitly called a “campaign event” that was promoted on the president’s campaign website is a clear departure from recent presidential practice.
In some ways, Trump’s visits around the country have been similar to those of his predecessors. In his first month in office, he went to Philadelphia to address a Republican congressional retreat, to Tampa to visit MacDill Air Force Base, to North Charleston, S.C., for an event at a Boeing facility, and to Melbourne, Fla., for his campaign rally.
That’s four presidential days of public events outside Washington, Maryland and Virginia within his first month as president. Within their presidencies’ first months, Barack Obama had five; George W. Bush also had four; and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton each had three, as you can see below.
Trump also followed in his predecessors’ footsteps by holding his rally in a key battleground state. My research has found that recent presidents have traveled more and more often to competitive electoral college states, and have done so earlier and earlier in their presidencies. One former chief of staff called the president’s time “the most valuable asset in any White House.” And more and more of it is being spent tending to electoral matters in what has come to be called a permanent campaign.
But it’s true that Trump is doing something different. Early in their tenure, recent presidents have tried to avoid appearing to be doing anything explicitly electoral. For instance, Ronald Reagan waited to formally establish his reelection committee until October 1983, three years into his first term and only a year before the next election. Even then he declared that he still had not decided whether to run. He explained that he would likely let the American people know whether he would be a candidate for another term “possibly by the first of the year,” almost three years after his inauguration as president.
Why would Reagan do this? Then-chief of staff James Baker explained, “I think he gains a little additional time to handle the tough job of being president and governing this nation without having everything he does be judged as purely political.”
Even when presidents are clearly campaigning for reelection, they often attest that they are not. At an Aug. 11, 2003, event in Denver, George W. Bush declared, “The political season will come in its own time. For me, now is not the time for politics. You see, I’ve got a job to do. I’m staying focused on the people’s business.” It was an odd message given the setting, as Bush was addressing a Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection fundraiser.
The sentiment was a typical one for Bush. A review of the American Presidency Project’s Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States reveals that Bush used the phrase “the political season will come in its own time” at 18 different Bush-Cheney fundraisers in the third year of his presidency.
Similarly, when Barack Obama kicked off his official campaign for a second term with a trio of Chicago fundraising events on April 14, 2011, he declared, “There’s going to come a time when I’ll fully engage in this race. When the time comes, I will be campaigning. I’ll be ready to go. But I’ve got to tell you, right now I still have this day job.”
Reagan, Bush and Obama were playing down the electoral focus of their activities in their third year in office. Trump, just a few weeks into his presidency, has been far less hesitant to mix campaigning and governing, and to do so openly.
Recent presidents have established their reelection campaign committees in their third year in office to meet ballot access deadlines for key nominating contests and to have time to raise sufficient campaign funds. Trump, in contrast, filed the paperwork to establish his reelection campaign committee on Jan. 20, 2017, the day he took office. This enables his campaign to fundraise for his reelection in his first weeks, months and years in office, including, as one news article noted, raising funds from ongoing sales of his “Make America Great Again” hats. He has also filed a trademark application for a reelection slogan, “Keep America Great.”
Some might think it’s refreshingly candid that Trump labeled his early Florida rally a campaign event. Many of Obama’s early official events were in swing states. In February 2009, he held events in Indiana, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina, all of which had been contested states in 2008. News stories like this one from the New York Times noted the geographic pattern: “Selling Stimulus, Obama Tours Battleground States.”
Since Trump was more direct about his intentions, so was the news media, which covered Trump’s Feb. 18 rally in Florida as a political event. CNN’s headline blared, “Trump gets what he wants in Florida: Campaign-level adulation.” U.S. News and World Report declared, “Back on the Campaign Trail Already, Trump Touts Promises Kept.”
While other presidents’ travel had political undercurrents, Trump is making the implicit explicit. And as a consequence of doing so, his 2020 campaign committee likely has to pay for a portion of the costs of his travel for his Florida campaign event, though administrations of both parties have refused to release specific information on just how much political entities pay when the president campaigns.
Trump, like his predecessors, must navigate the ongoing tensions between campaigning and governing. By departing from the reluctance of recent presidents to hold overtly electoral events early in their term, Trump is again putting his own distinctive stamp on the presidency.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.