Thursday, March 01, 2018

Nothing Affects the Washington Climate Like Presidential Job Approval

There are many ways in which the Trump presidency is historically distinctive, but one of the most consequential is how unpopular it has been right from the start. Before Trump, even those new presidents who won a close election or entered office amidst controversy enjoyed a "honeymoon period" of elevated public support during the first months of their administrations. Of the previous twelve presidents who served during the era of modern survey research, eight ended their first year in office with average job approval ratings of at least 55 percent, and approving citizens outnumbered disapprovers at that stage of their term for all twelve.

But according to the poll aggregator at FiveThirtyEight, Trump's approval rating has never climbed higher than 48 percent—which in itself represents a transient peak reached briefly in the days immediately after his inauguration. The share of Americans who disapproved of his performance first exceeded those who approved on February 4, 2017, barely two weeks into his presidency, and reached 51 percent of all surveyed citizens (including those who responded "don't know") on March 16; it has not dropped below this level since.

These approval ratings matter a lot for presidents. Denizens of Washington, both in and out of government, pay close attention to the polls and maintain a rough consensus across partisan and ideological lines over whether the president is popular or unpopular, gaining or losing ground. Job approval numbers act as a kind of highly visible thermometer measuring the political climate surrounding the White House, and everyone in the vicinity agrees that high temperatures are much more comfortable than low ones.

Presidents with positive ratings can harness their popularity to pressure Congress, to win battles with organized interests, and to recruit strong candidates for their party in congressional elections (and discourage strong potential opponents). But the latest reported survey numbers also strongly color the press coverage that presidents receive. Journalists and commentators rely on approval ratings as an accessible and "objective" measure of presidential success, and they also tend to be very sensitive to accusations of being snobbish or out of touch with the wider public. How better to demonstrate that one is properly attuned to the preferences and perspectives of Mr. and Ms. America than by crediting presidents with effective leadership when the polls say the voters are happy and by dwelling on their failures when the electorate is doing the same?

In 2002 and 2003, for example, media coverage routinely characterized George W. Bush as tough, decisive, dedicated, politically deft, administratively effective, and surrounded by a skilled team of subordinates. By 2007 and 2008, after both the national economy and the Iraq War had fallen into crisis on his watch, Bush was frequently portrayed as detached, out of his depth, and hampered by political and managerial incompetence. It was almost as if the occupant of the White House had become a different person entirely. What had happened instead was that the same man—with, presumably, the same personal qualities—had seen his national popularity drop by more than 50 percentage points from one point to the next.

The various public mishaps and chronic internal tensions of the Trump administration would have produced a series of unfavorable media stories in any circumstance, but the collective Washington judgment that the current chief executive is fundamentally ill-suited to his position is much less likely to have formed if his approval ratings had remained above 50 percent. Trump had an opportunity immediately after his shocking electoral upset to convince professional observers that he served as an adept and formidable messenger of a growing populist rebellion. However, the public's dim response to his governing record from its earliest days forward has merely reinforced the general perception that he is instead something of an accidental president—and, above all, a particularly hapless one. If a consistent majority of Americans told pollsters that they trusted Trump's judgment on how to handle North Korea, viewed the Mueller investigation as illegitimate, and found the president's Twitter persona charmingly delightful, the tone of press coverage on these and other matters would be much different than they are. And Democratic leaders would be faced with persistent questions about whether their party was mired in an enduring crisis.

Given the current state of (relative) national peace and prosperity, it's likely that a president who lacked Trump's unappealing personal attributes would be enjoying positive job approval ratings these days. Another, more popular Republican incumbent would be in a position to protect the party's congressional majorities in the 2018 midterm elections—and even to sow havoc in the ranks of the opposition by forcing red-state Democrats to choose between angering their party base and alienating the general electorate in their home constituencies. (The extent to which Trump's foibles have limited the political pressure on vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents like Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of the undertold stories of the 2017–2018 session of Congress.) Even if one believes that the president has been more successful than acknowledged, or even that he is on track to win a second term, surely the opportunity cost paid by the Republican Party for electing President Trump rather than a President Rubio or President Kasich is still quite considerable.

A few weeks ago, a series of polls started to report a minor upward trend in Trump's job approval. Because the media love to have something new to talk about, this movement received a substantial amount of notice in the press even though the president's rating only rose a few points into the low 40s on average (41 percent according to FiveThirtyEight, 42 percent according to RealClearPolitics, and 43 percent according to HuffPost). In part, the approval bump attracted attention because it coincided with a narrowing of the Democratic advantage in the "generic ballot" polls asking voters which party they plan to support in the 2018 midterm elections.

Over the past 10 days or so, however, Trump's modest surge has started to reverse, and the generic ballot is also moving back in the Democratic direction. We'll no doubt experience several more such fluctuations between now and November, and a few media stories proclaiming a "Trump comeback" will likely ensue whenever the polls register upward momentum for a week or two. From a larger perspective, though, the current administration remains historically unpopular, and only a truly dramatic, double-digit shift in voter sentiment could fully convince the Washington community that the president had regained his touch with the public.

One particularly curious quirk of the oft-atypical Trump regime is the apparent absence of a standard White House political shop headed by a professional strategist with substantial internal access and influence—a Karl Rove, David Axelrod, or Jim Baker type. In a normal presidency struggling with subpar approval ratings and a looming national election, well-connected publications like the Washington Post and Politico would be filled at this stage with one story after another about this operation's internal analysis of its political difficulties and its planned strategies for restoring the political standing of its party in the months before the balloting started.

But the current president, his chief of staff, and many of his top aides all lack substantial partisan-elective experience; if there is indeed anyone directing such an effort, it seems to be a well-kept secret at the moment. (What's Kellyanne Conway up to these days?) Expect increasingly nervous congressional Republicans to soon start dropping hints in the press that a White House habitually shrouded in a fog of its own self-made distractions is not paying enough attention to the potentially perilous fate of its nominal allies on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are Washingtonians too, after all—and just like everyone else in their community, they're keeping a close eye on those job approval ratings.