With this article I continue, following a brief pause, my series of articles on the troubles awaiting for Donald Trump as he prepares to move into the White House.
When new Presidents take office there are often conversations about their “mandate” to govern – “the authority granted by their constituency, the American people, to act as their representative”. New Presidents who enjoy a mandate are often more effective early on in their Presidency because they appear to have the authority of the American people solidly behind them. Bottom line – they can get more done early in their Presidential career.
A President’s mandate is often measured by the size of his/hers Electoral College victory and/or the percentage of the popular vote, but not always. Take a situation where two popular candidates vie for the Presidency. When one wins it is possible that even many who voted for the losing candidate will be satisfied with the winner. “Heck, we could have done worse”. In such cases it is the initial popularity of the new President which determines the size of his/her mandate.
In our present situation, the President-elect won the Electoral Collage by winning three states by the narrowest of margins and lost the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Under such circumstance it makes sense to evaluate Donald Trump’s popularity, or lack there of, as he prepares to move into the White House. (As we go through this keep in mind that when George W. Bush assumed the Presidency he had a positive favorability rating of 55% despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Al Gore and only won the EC when the Supreme Court Justices injected themselves into a disputed election.)
When Donald Trump moves into the Oval Office he will be the least popular person to do so in most of our lifetimes. He might even be the most unpopular person ever to assume the role of Commander-in-Chief, but favorability polls only go back so far. In polls taken in this calendar year, Trump’s popularity numbers average 43% favorable, 52% unfavorable with an average difference of – 9%. While these rating are higher than when he won the election, I should also point out that none of these polls were taken after it was revealed that Trump might be subject to Russian blackmail. I can’t imagine how that would make some of his Republican supporters happy. So Trump will be lucky if his numbers don’t slip by inauguration day.
Late addition: Today, as I suspected it would when I wrote the paragraph above yesterday, The Donald’s situation has gone from bad to worse. A CNN poll which asked respondents to state whether or not they viewed Trump’s transition favorably provided these results – 40% favorable, 52% unfavorable.
Now one might expect some level of dissatisfaction in the country because Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. However, it goes much deeper than that. In my rather long lifetime I have never seen someone as despised as Donald Trump take over the most powerful job in the world. New Presidents back to Regan were obviously not popular with all of those who voted against them, but I have never seen anywhere like this level of revulsion for the future President. Even many that voted for him now admit that in order to do so they had put aside many of his negative qualities. Trump is held in high esteem by very few and it isn’t difficult to understand why.
Donald Trump’s unfavorable comparison to outgoing President Barack Obama doesn’t help his cause with the American people. In the six polls recorded in January, Obama’s job approval rating averaged 55% favorable, 41% unfavorable for a +14% difference. Obama numbers are still rising – the two polls taken within the last week have his job approval ratings at 57% and 58%. It is obviously even more difficult to assume the office of a popular predecessor when you have poor favorability ratings like Trump. However, that might be comparing apples to oranges. Let’s instead compare Trump’s current ratings to those of past Presidents when they were moving into the White House.
Late addition: A new CNN poll just out records President Obama’s present job approval rating at 60%.
Here are the favorability ratings of the past 12 Presidents as they assumed office. When Harry Truman became President after the death of Franklin Roosevelt he had a favorability rating of 88%. Dwight Eisenhower was viewed favorably by 55% of Americans when he moved into the White House. John Kennedy had a 72% favorability rating and when Lyndon Johnson took over for him after his death Johnson was viewed favorability by 72% of Americans. Richard Nixon was rated at 61% and even after White Water shook the country Gerald Ford took over with a 71% rating. Jimmy Carter took over the reins of the country with a 66% rating. However, in the new era of partisan politics newly elected Presidents were not as widely admired, but all had positive favorability ratings: Ronald Regan 51%, George H.W. Bush 51%, Bill Clinton 57%. Finally Barack Obama with his message of hope was a great deal more popular at with a 68% favorability rating just prior to taking the oath of office.
Looking back at the trend lines for these 12 men it is clear that early in a President’s career it is always a time of optimism. Understandably there is the promise of a new administration, a fresh start. None of these 12 Presidents were able to maintain their initial level of popularity all throughout their time in the White House. At some point or another during their Presidencies each of these men, except Kennedy and Eisenhower, experienced job performance ratings much lower than 50% – Kennedy’s lowest rating was 56% and Eisenhower’s was 48%. The lowest points for the other 10 Presidents averaged 34% so they all had some rough times. With Donald Trump taking office with a favorability rating of 43% 40%, it is any one’s guess how low his job approval ratings could eventually go.
So here is the bottom line for Trump: With a very narrow EC victory, a huge popular vote loss, with more than half of the American people viewing him unfavorably, and with a large percentage of the country’s population actually despising him, he is in the weakest position of any President while assuming office in at least the last hundred years, if not longer. Trump has no mandate to govern. Normally someone in his weak position would be well advised to take it slow and build up the trust of the American people before attempting any important projects, but that is not of course is not Trump’s style. When at this point past Presidents were seriously preparing to govern, he is still in campaign mode tweeting out huge promises he can’t possibly keep.
Instead of making allies Trump has gone out of his way to anger the press. He made the mistake of fighting with a civil rights icon causing an unprecedented Congressional boycott of his inauguration. There will probably be more people protesting in Washington Friday then will attend his inauguration. His reluctance to coordinate with Congressional leaders on his proposed health care legislation has left them baffled and very unhappy. His public bromance with Putin and his references about forming stronger ties with Russia have alarmed Republican like Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and others. They along with Democratic Senate leaders are intent on investigating not only Russia’s attempt to influence the election, but also the coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russian agents during the campaign, and Trump’s personal and/or financial motivations for getting cozy with Putin.
Newly inaugurated Presidents normally have what is commonly referred to as a “honeymoon period” during their first 100 days in office where they can proceed with their agenda with the full blessings of the majority of the America people. Trump will have no such honeymoon; his first 100 days are more likely to be a quagmire. The Senate Intelligence Committees examining his relations with Putin and Russia will operate on Stage 1. Every agenda item he pushes forward will be subjected to intense scrutiny by the press. Trump is not a conservative; he is a populist with an intense populist’s desire to be admired by everyone. This need will highlight important differences with his purported conservative allies in Congress. This intense need will also cause him to attack on Twitter any and everyone he feels has crossed him, further illustrating his lack of Presidential dignity to the American people.
This is what I see in my crystal ball lies ahead for Donald Trump as he gets used to his new inferior digs in the White House. And I suspect things might go down hill for him from there.