As he makes his case for reelection, President Donald Trump has largely been campaigning on the same themes he ran on in 2016: “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp.”

But even though he’s now the incumbent, in his telling, he’s really still an outsider. And even though the nation faces epic challenges – a pandemic that has killed 180,000 Americans, double-digit unemployment, racial unrest – he and his surrogates are pitching a positive message. As Vice President Mike Pence put it Monday, “We’re going to make America great again … again!”

It’s a much more difficult argument to make than in 2016, because many of the problems the president is promising to solve have occurred on his own watch. Mr. Trump’s skills as a salesman and showman will be tested to the hilt over the next two-plus months – including Thursday night, when he formally accepts the Republican presidential nomination. 

“He is trying to point to the chaos and confusion that is 2020 America, and then divorce himself from any responsibility for the chaos and confusion – then argue that he’s the solution to the chaos and confusion,” says Rachel Bitecofer, an election forecaster at the nonpartisan Niskanen Center in Washington.

Washington

“Presidential power,” wrote the scholar Richard Neustadt, “is the power to persuade.” 

President Donald Trump may be putting that time-honored observation to the acid test, running for reelection in a nation beset by epic challenges. A chief executive with lesser powers of persuasion might be crushed by the turmoil taking place on his watch – a pandemic that has killed 180,000 Americans, double-digit unemployment, racial unrest, and increasingly routine weather extremes that many link to climate change. 

But President Trump is no ordinary American leader. As he demonstrated time and again in his business career, he has an uncanny ability to survive and even thrive amid adversity. His skills as a salesman and showman are his superpower, and over the next two-plus months – including Thursday night, when he formally accepts the Republican presidential nomination – he will deploy them to the hilt. 

Mr. Trump has for the most part been campaigning on the same themes he ran on in 2016: “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp” – that is, uproot the entrenched elites. Despite the fact that he’s now the incumbent, he’s really still an outsider, in his telling. 

“He’s demonizing the same people: immigrants, foreigners, the media,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “It’s essentially a replay of the message that put him in the White House in 2016 – barely, but it worked. There’s a natural tendency to go back to what worked before.”

Historians see efforts to emulate President Ronald Reagan, another disruptor who won the White House twice, on the argument that he needed two terms to effect his conservative “revolution.” Others see parallels with President Richard Nixon, who ran on “law and order” amid the tumult of 1968, though he was not the incumbent president. 

At this point, Mr. Trump has been in office more than three and a half years. Despite the nation’s massive challenges, he and his surrogates are pitching a positive message: He made America great once, and he can do it again. Or as Vice President Mike Pence put it Monday, “We’re going to make America great again … again!” 

The president’s economic message centers on the low unemployment, robust growth, and reduced taxes and regulation that were the hallmarks of his record before the coronavirus hit. Blame for the pandemic lands squarely with others, Mr. Trump says: China, where the virus originated, and with the Democratic mayors and governors who failed to halt its spread.