WASHINGTON — Donald Trump knows how to make a moment.
The president-elect is flying to Indiana on Thursday for an event with officials from Carrier Corp., which is keeping about 1,000 jobs in the U.S. instead of moving them to Mexico. In doing so, he's showing an early deftness for the way the theater of the presidency can be used to shape perceptions of those who occupy the Oval Office.
“The optics are good and smart — an early win on a visible promise,” said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama.
Obama has toured his share of factories over eight years in office, heralding new innovations and shaking hands with workers. But he's often bristled at presidential stagecraft, the part of the job where sending the right message can sometimes be as important as making the right decision.
“It's not something that always comes naturally to me,” Obama has said of the optics of the presidency. “But it matters.”
The president has specifically lamented his administration's struggles to communicate progress on the economy to Americans. No matter how many times Obama and his advisers touted the number of jobs created under his watch or the steady decline in the unemployment rate since 2009, many Americans have felt disconnected from that progress.
Trump's trip to Carrier's Indianapolis factory is designed, in part, to be a pick-me-up for those Americans. He pitched himself as a champion for “forgotten” workers, a real estate mogul who would use his negotiating skills to convince companies to stop moving jobs overseas.
Carrier's decision makes just a small dent in addressing that larger economic issue, and Trump's own involvement in shaping the deal is unclear. The company cited state incentives and Trump's promises to “create an improved, more competitive U.S. business climate” in explaining the decision.
Indiana Sen. Dan Coats said that for U.S. workers, Carrier's decision “symbolizes more to come” under Trump's administration.
“I think there are a lot of people that are reassured that there's a president that's going to look out for their well-being and their family's well-being,” Coats said Wednesday following a meeting with Trump.
Trump has long relished the promotional aspects of his business career, attending ribbon cuttings at hotels around the world and sticking his name in big letters on nearly every piece of property he owns. He turned his business reputation into a reality television show, making him a household name around the country.
If Trump's presidential transition is any indication, he plans to give his White House a showman's touch, too. Cabinet candidates parade past reporters camped out in the lobby of Manhattan's Trump Tower on their way to job interviews. Cameras were rushed into a private dinner Trump held Wednesday with Mitt Romney, a contender to lead the State Department — a dinner that took place at one of the president-elect's hotels.
Once Trump is in office, some Republicans have privately speculated that he may leave much of the detailed wrangling over legislation and other policy decisions to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and GOP congressional leaders, then step in for the sales pitch or victory lap.
Pence, the outgoing Indiana governor, appears to have played a role in the Carrier agreement.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said Trump “deserves credit” for the jobs deal. But he sent a clear message that even in an office where style matters, substance still matters most.
“If (Trump) is successful in doing that 804 more times, then he will meet the record of manufacturing jobs that were created in the United States while President Obama was in office,” Earnest said.