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Democrats may struggle to find hope in Trump’s presidency, experts say

President-elect Donald Trump throws a hat into the audience while speaking at a rally in a DOW Chemical Hanger at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Barack Obama was elected on a promise of hope and change, but his wife said in an interview that aired Monday that many people are feeling the opposite as he prepares to turn the White House over to Donald Trump.

"We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like," Michelle Obama told Oprah Winfrey. "Hope is necessary. It's a necessary concept and Barack didn't just talk about hope because he thought it was just a nice slogan to get votes."

Trump dismissed that concern at a rally in Alabama Saturday, as his supporters booed the mention of the First Lady’s name.

“Michelle Obama said yesterday that there’s no hope,” Trump said. “But I assume she was talking about the past not the future because I’m telling you, we have tremendous hope.”

Polls suggest many share Michelle Obama’s sentiment, though. Approval of Trump and optimism for his presidency has risen since the election, but there is still far more opposition and fear than Barack Obama faced at this point in 2008.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday found that 50 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the transition so far, while 41 percent disapprove. Obama and President Bill Clinton had over 70 percent approval on this question in mid-December of 2008 and 1992, respectively.

According to the poll, 54 percent of the country is uncertain or pessimistic about Trump’s presidency, while 45 percent are optimistic or confident.

Gallup poll data from last week provided similar results, with Trump’s transition approval rating at 48 percent, equal to the level of disapproval. Obama had 75 percent approval in the same poll in 2008.

The partisan divide on the question underscores how difficult it will be for Trump to convince those who did not support him that he will make the country better. Only 17 percent of Democrats currently approve of his transition.

“If he’s going to be successful, he’s going to have to work on really pitching to everyone,” said political psychologist Dr. Bart Rossi.

Spreading the sense of hope beyond his base poses a challenge for Trump for a number of reasons, including a deeply ingrained opinion of him fueled by his behavior and rhetoric on the campaign trail.

“People who did not vote for Trump think that he is a bizarre, narcissistic person,” Rossi said.

It is unlikely he will be able to change that perception, but he may be able to demonstrate to them that there are aspects of his personality that can do some good.

“He could provide hope by going out there right after the first of the year…and say I am going to help the average person,” Rossi said.

That would require a slightly more bipartisan agenda than Trump has laid out so far, one that promotes fair taxation, responsible business practices, environmental protection, and affordable college tuition. Rossi also suggested taking an “amend and improve” approach to the Affordable Care Act instead of the “repeal and replace” model Republicans have advocated.

“Trump was inspiring hope in his people” during the campaign, said George Lakoff, author of “The ALL NEW Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” and a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

For those who felt the government was working against them and holding them down, Lakoff said Trump’s message sounded hopeful. To appeal to those who did not feel that way, he may need to try something different.

“The question for Trump would be: is it even his goal?” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University.

With his “thank you” rallies and Twitter tirades, much of Trump’s behavior since the election has been squarely aimed at his base. When national crises arise, he will need to offer hope to everyone, though.

“It’s important that the president speak in terms that engender public confidence,” Martin said. That was one reason why Ronald Reagan was a more effective communicator than Jimmy Carter.

As Obama’s 2008 “hope and change” campaign demonstrated, hope is a valuable tool for winning elections, but the president learned quickly in office that it has limited utility for actually advancing legislation and policies.

“It’s a word that doesn’t legislate,” she said.

Although Trump did appeal to a segment of disillusioned Obama voters in 2016, for many Democrats the current president remains a figure synonymous with hope.

“There’s a way in which the Obamas almost have a trademark on that word and Donald Trump can’t have it,” Martin said. “Progressives are never going to give it to him.”

Obama’s vision of hope was a multi-generational, cross-partisan movement based in inclusiveness and looking to the future, but Martin described Trump’s version of hope as “based in resentment” and less forward-looking.

More than half of voters did not want Trump to be president, and they do not share the resentment that his supporters do. Instead, they believe that resentment is aimed at them.

“It’s such a different formulation of hope,” she said.

It may prove easier for Democrats to find their inspiration in a passionate and effective opposition movement against Trump. That requires a passionate and effective leadership, though, and Democrats currently lack that.

“If Democrats learned from this defeat how to be a strong opposition party again, that could be the silver lining in a very, very dark cloud,” Martin said.

The left usually has the anti-establishment candidates, but Trump and Clinton flipped that equation in 2016. Democrats need to reclaim the anti-establishment label and start fighting the hard fights.

Martin suggested looking at how Republicans remained fired up during the Obama years by standing up and obstructing him when they could and tackling issues that their supporters cared about.

The disorganization within the Democratic Party leadership with no clear successor to Obama contributes to the sense of uncertainty and disaffection in the base, according to Lakoff. Top Democrats still seem to be unable to grasp Trump’s appeal or recognize that their old tactics will not work against an unconventional president.

“There really isn’t any coherence,” he said.

Michelle Obama has said she has no interest in running for office, the Clintons are stepping out of the spotlight, and other party heavyweights like Vice President Joe Biden are in their 70s. Democrats must find a new generation of strong leaders who can appeal to a broad constituency and win back some of the voters who defected to Trump.

“The problem with the Democrats is they don’t have anybody on the bench… They need a new beginning,” Rossi said.

If they accomplish that while Trump pushes a conservative agenda in the White House, Democrats might have a very strong sense of hope heading into the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“It could be a completely different climate if Trump goes down an extremely hard-right road and the Democrats pull some good-looking people into the fray,” he said.

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