On the night of the State of Union address, I said on ABC News that President Donald Trump had delivered a pretty good message on the economy, jobs and growth and that would be an effective way to move into the general election.
But the question would be if he could stay on that message for 78 days after doing it for 78 minutes.
After watching Trump’s open-mic rant this afternoon, going after all his political enemies and speaking unhinged for over an hour, we now realize he couldn’t even stick to his State of the Union message for 78 hours.
In 2016, no matter what many analysts and pundits have said, Trump was elected not because of himself, but in spite of himself. He ended the campaign with the worst favorability rating of any presidential candidate in modern history, and this unfavorability was primarily driven by his own actions and his words. He won the election because he was running against a nearly equally unpopular candidate in Hillary Clinton, and among voters who disliked both candidates, they went by a double-digit margin for the candidate who they thought most represented change of the status quo.
In this election year, Trump is going to represent the status quo more than the Democratic nominee because he is the sitting president running for re-election. And whoever is the Democratic nominee is likely to have a better favorability rating than him. What he must do, then, is turn this race into one primarily about the economy, which is impressively positive today.
When Trump is talking about the economy, he is winning. When he is talking about anything else, focusing the voters on his words and actions, he is on much shakier ground. This is why the one third of the State of the Union address about the economy was effective, but the question with President Trump is can he stay disciplined on that message or any message. Ultimately, can he get out of his own way, and let the economy lift him?
There wasn’t a thing Trump said today at today's White House event, which he used to lambaste his enemies and enumerate his grievances that was helpful for his reelection effort. It did accomplish something though -- putting the focus back on him in a personal way and that is a very weak place for him. He waded in, and again got in his own way. Any capital he may have built up from the State of the Union has, to quote the warden in "Shawshank Redemption," “vanished like a fart in the wind."
Can Trump get back to a disciplined focus on the economy and position himself better for re-election? Yes it is possible. However, today’s event demonstrated that the greatest threat to the president’s reelection isn’t the Democratic nominee, it is Trump himself.
Matthew Dowd is the chief political analyst for ABC News. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.