Four years ago, Donald Trump glided down an escalator into the lobby of Trump Tower, a building he regards as his signature accomplishment, for a marketing event.
During a speech in which he boasted of his wealth and business acumen, and promised to tackle what he described as unchecked immigration from Mexico, unfair competition from China, and the "big lie" of Obamacare, he announced his presidential bid. "We are going to make our country great again," he said. "I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. I tell you that."
On Tuesday evening, Trump took to the stage in Orlando, Florida, for what, by all appearances and a dearth of concrete policy proposals, was also nothing much more than a marketing opportunity. "Tonight, I stand before you to officially launch my campaign for a second term as president of the United States," he said in the Amway Center, a stadium named after the company his education secretary's in-laws co-founded and still run. "We are going to keep on working. We are going to keep on fighting. And we are going to keep on winning, winning, winning."
Trump has got far in life on little more than gossamer-thin promotional efforts and he tapped into the allegiances and sentiments of thousands of his supporters in Orlando by asking them to help pick his new campaign slogan. Should he retain "Make America Great Again" - Trump stopped to gauge their applause - or swap that one out for "Keep America Great?" The crowd clearly preferred the latter. He also made his case by gesturing toward positive economic and jobs data, and trotting out a tired series of enemies including Hillary Clinton, the media, Robert Mueller, China, ISIS and immigrants. The good guys were God, the American flag, the country, guns, Israel and national security.
Trump wound up saying little new in his Orlando speech and he's probably going to have to do much better if he wants a second lease on the Oval Office. While he's successfully mobilized the emotions and resentments of a large portion of the electorate, and has commandeered the Republican Party machinery, the biggest fruits of his presidency have been enjoyed by cultural conservatives and his most affluent supporters. Other voters have now road-tested the unproven Trump of 2015 who promised to take a wrecking ball to the Washington bureaucracy, drain the swamp, and negotiate a series of political and economic deals that would benefit average Americans struggling with uncertainty. A significant number of those folks may review Trump's original promises and find him lacking.
In that context, Trump's 2015 marketing salvo in Trump Tower may offer a more interesting series of reference points than Tuesday night's performance art at the Amway Center. Consider some of these highlights from the 2015 speech:
- Immigration and the wall: "I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words."
There is no wall, of course. Other than incarceration and deportation, Trump hasn't offered a refined, sophisticated response to immigration problems and the humanitarian crisis plaguing the U.S.'s southern border. He's merely hatched an escalating series of migration crises to court his base and thus converted a thorny policy challenge into a wrenching, inhumane debacle.
- Healthcare: "We have to repeal Obamacare, and it can be - and - and it can be replaced with something much better for everybody. Let it be for everybody. But much better and much less expensive for people and for the government. And we can do it."
Trump failed to overturn Obamacare. He and his party still haven't outlined and made a case for a healthcare plan to replace it. While Trump has hinted recently that he might roll out a new plan soon, somebody who promised to get something better "for everybody" - at a lower price point for both the government and consumers - is peddling snake oil.
- Education: "End - end Common Core. Common Core should - it is a disaster… We have to end, education has to be local."
Education in the U.S. is already largely local, and Common Core programs (a set of standards on what American schoolkids should know at the end of each grade) are administered at the state and local level. Trump never had the power to gut Common Core to begin with, and it still exists.
- Public works: "Rebuild the country's infrastructure."
- National security: "I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons."
The drama unfolds and the president seems determined to honor this promise. But he has run a fragmented and chaotic White House and his national security team is no exception. So his approaches on Iran policy (like his approaches toward North Korea, China and Russia) are invariably inconsistent, sometimes suspect, and often just plain senseless.
- The economy, markets and fiscal management: "Reduce our $18 trillion in debt, because, believe me, we're in a bubble. We have artificially low interest rates. We have a stock market that, frankly, has been good to me, but I still hate to see what's happening. We have a stock market that is so bloated. Be careful of a bubble because what you've seen in the past might be small potatoes compared to what happens. So be very, very careful."
Although he didn't mention a tax cut at all in his 2015 speech, Trump and the GOP engineered a massive corporate rate reduction and a meaningful cut to personal rates that - along with deregulation and judicial appointments - may be a core accomplishment of his first term. It created a short-term economic pop and has given markets a lift. But the national debt has breached $22 trillion and the deficit is tracking to reach $1 trillion next year.
Trump is now pushing the Fed to lower rates to stave off a possible recession and many stocks appear to be at peak valuations. Bubblicious all around. But Trump (and the country) are also enjoying unemployment rates at their lowest since the late 1960s. If middle class and working class voters end up realizing very few financial gains from the tax cut, or a recession hobbles the job market, Trump will have some explaining to do.
- Good government: "You know, we're building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we're converting it into one of the world's great hotels. It's gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C. We got it from the General Services Administration in Washington."
Trump operates a hotel in Washington that sits atop federally controlled land that he is, in essence, leasing from himself now that he's president. The hotel draws guests who do a lot of business or conduct a lot of diplomacy with the White House, and it's emblematic of the financial conflicts of interest that continue to dog Trump and his eldest children. Did Trump mention the hotel during his 2015 speech because he wanted to emphasize his desire to divest his holding in the interest of transparent, corruption-free governance? No, he did not. He mentioned it because the speech - at its core - was part of a marketing effort Trump deployed to promote his personal brand and properties.
Trump's bid for the presidency in 2020 will hinge on whether he continues to have economic winds at his back, who the Democrats put forward as their nominee, and how voters respond to the various promises made by Trump in 2015 - and not kept. Soliciting input from crowds on catchy campaign slogans won't paper over any of that.