It’s Team Trump’s time in the barrel. After the underwhelming crowd in Tulsa, Okla., and polls showing the president trailing Joe Biden substantially, the political commentariat is beginning to say Mr. Trump has no chance of re-election.
The president is behind with less than 18 weeks to go, and he’s trailing by more than Harry S. Truman in 1948, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012, all of whom rallied to win. But 2016 should give every pundit a gigantic dose of humility: Don’t count this president out.
The campaign hasn’t really begun. Sequestered in his basement, out of sight for days at a time, Mr. Biden has taken the lead without campaigning as the media’s spotlight has been squarely on the incumbent during a difficult time. But the Democratic nominee can’t hide forever.
For Team Trump, the question is what the president must do to regain momentum after a catastrophic June. As president, Mr. Trump has powerful tools, and polls show that on the most important issue in presidential elections, the economy, Americans trust him over Mr. Biden.
Though Trump campaign officials say their tracking shows the president’s numbers improving after a drop in early June, the campaign must admit that a reset is needed. Then it needs to do it.
This week’s modest staff shake-up isn’t it. A reset is a presidential address on new policy initiatives or a significant change in tone that allows the White House to say credibly that the country is moving in a new direction, repositioning the president. Confronting Senate Democrats over their decision to block consideration of Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform measure presents one such reset opportunity.
Finding an issue that grabs public attention is only the start. No president gets re-elected saying only, “I’ve done a good job.” Last week Sean Hannity asked Mr. Trump about his second-term agenda. The president dodged, perhaps not wanting to lay it all out on cable TV. But the moment is fast approaching when Mr. Trump must describe what comes next. Find your calendar and circle Aug. 27, when he will accept his party’s nomination. More Americans will be listening then for what Mr. Trump wants to accomplish in the next four years than at any time in the campaign besides the debates.
The last three presidents who won re-election used their acceptance speeches to convince voters they had something new to offer. In 1996, President Clinton pledged to “build a bridge to the 21st century” with an agenda of broader access to education, a balanced budget, an expanded child tax credit, welfare-to-work programs, gun control and support for law enforcement.
Mr. Bush’s 2004 convention speech emphasized his economic agenda: tax reform, regulatory relief, energy independence and opportunity zones. He also promised health savings accounts, Social Security reform, increased emphasis on math and science education and an attack on junk medical malpractice lawsuits.
In 2012, President Obama offered investments in clean energy and natural gas, 100,000 new math and science teachers, two million new community college students and a tax hike on the wealthy. Mr. Obama also did the other thing that Mr. Trump must do: establish the election as “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
After describing his vision—“the basic bargain at the heart of America’s story, the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot”—Mr. Obama went straight after his opponent, Mitt Romney, who he said wanted “tax breaks for millionaires” and supported “firing teachers” and “kicking students off financial aid” before mocking Mr. Romney for calling “Russia our No. 1 enemy.”
In this way, Mr. Obama succeeded in making 2012 a choice election. Mr. Trump shouldn’t wait for the convention to start showing voters they face an important choice, as he and Mr. Biden are opposed on big issues. He can start with immigration, energy and trade before moving on to new topics.
Mr. Trump’s success will depend on discipline, hardly his strength. Amid multiple crises—a pandemic, a badly damaged economy and racial unrest—Americans need to see competence equal to the country’s challenges, and a bold second-term agenda. Anything that undermines this—a needless tweet, a focus on a less important topic or a feud—increases the odds that Mr. Trump will be a one-term president.