Real Clear Politics
Donald Trump will not be the first president to face a deeply polarized country and doubts about the legitimacy of his victory as he is sworn in. But he has so far wrestled these challenges much differently than another modern president who weathered the same.
George W. Bush has been here and done that. He won the presidency more than one month after Election Day, when the Supreme Court ruled that a recount of votes in Florida should be halted. The decision awarded Bush a victory in the Electoral College, even as he trailed Vice President Al Gore in the national popular vote.
Bush faced immediate protest, with some Democrats questioning whether he would be a “legitimate” president.
When NBC News anchor Tim Russert raised the L-word with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, in an interview just days after the Supreme Court’s decision, Gephardt refused to utter it — sticking to his talking points throughout an excruciating few minutes of follow-up questions.
The next day, Bush met with Gephardt and other congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, where a reporter asked Gephardt why he had dodged the question and whether he indeed viewed Bush as a “legitimate” president.
“Yes, is my answer,” Bush chuckled, along with others in the room.
Gephardt, cowed, acknowledged that Bush would be sworn in as president the following month. “I don't know how you can get more legitimate than that,” he added.
Trump will take the oath of office at his inauguration Friday, following an election outcome that was never in dispute. Although Trump lagged Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes in the national popular vote, his victory in the Electoral College was incontestable.
Revelations since then about the extent and focus of Russian interference in the election have added a wrinkle, however, lending fuel to Trump’s critics in a tinderbox political environment.
But if Bush publicly laughed off questions about his claim to the office of the presidency, Trump has taken a markedly different approach.
Trump and his top advisers have on multiple occasions suggested that U.S. intelligence assessments blaming Russia for seeking to influence the presidential election through hacking, propaganda and other means have been politically motivated to undercut Trump. In an interview this month with the New York Times, Trump called it “a political witch hunt.”
Meanwhile, Trump has attacked critics who have cast aspersions on his victory, including Democratic Rep. John Lewis. "I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said on “Meet The Press” last week, drawing a fiery response from the president-elect.
Bush, of course, did not have Twitter or other social media at his disposal during his transition to the presidency and in the days and weeks after he was sworn in, but it likely would not have shifted his calculus. He deliberately did not engage questions over the election outcome, instead moving swiftly to begin the governing process, according to former aides. The strategy seemingly echoed Gephardt: there was nothing more legitimate than being the president.
“You wanted to move forward quickly, and the way to do that is to show you are leading,” said Nick Calio, who led legislative affairs for Bush during the first few years of his administration.
Having laid the groundwork with congressional leaders during the abbreviated transition period, Bush organized a slew of meetings with lawmakers of both parties during the first days of his presidency. They served "both practical and optical” purposes, Calio said — as venues to cultivate relationships and hash out policy pathways, but also to showcase Bush to the public as the country’s new leader.
"Some people described it as a 'charm offensive’ at the time,” Calio added. “We described it as a 'leadership offensive.'"
The push was centered initially around Bush’s education reform plan, "No Child Left Behind.” Many of the meetings with lawmakers took place at the White House in part because of “the aura” of that setting, Calio said.
Although the election outcome had been far from decisive, Bush and his team forged ahead, deliberately, as though they had been granted a clear mandate from American voters, without slowing down or second-guessing.
"We won the election, and (Bush) campaigned on certain policies, and that was the only way to go,” said Calio.
But Bush was also much more familiar with Washington than his “outsider” frame on the campaign trail might have suggested, with “a lot more connective tissue to begin with” than someone like Trump, said Terry Holt, who worked as communications director to House Majority Leader Dick Armey during Bush’s first few years in the White House. Bush had experience in government, respect for the institutions of Washington and, of course, a direct familial line to the White House itself.
Bush was also disciplined. He “had in his mind a model for how he ought to conduct himself, and he had a team of very conventional politicians that he relied upon as advisers,” said Holt. Relative to how Trump’s transition has played out, Holt added, Bush’s entrée into Washington “just followed the script a little more traditionally.”
Trump’s arrival in the capital promises to rewrite the script, with controversy over his presidency reflected by historically low approval ratings for a new president. Prior to Bush’s inauguration, 62 percent of Americans rated him favorably, even with controversy over the recount and Supreme Court ruling still simmering. Trump, for his part, scores favorably among just 40 percent of people, according to Gallup.
Perhaps recognizing the fragile political dynamic that greeted him in Washington, Bush did not lash out at his critics, but rather emphasized unity and healing for the fractured country, with frequent doses of levity.
“I think it was part of his personality,” Holt said. “Bush could drive a car just fine without a rearview mirror. He was always looking forward.”
Trump, of course, has charted a different path, one featuring frequent detours to relitigate the election and defend his victory. Whether he will change his tone once he is sworn in, and unquestionably the president, is an open question.
"He’s president-elect. He’s going to be president in two days,” said Calio on Wednesday. “In my view, he doesn’t have anything to address."
Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.