Where Trump's Dismal Popularity Could Hurt Him Most

The president-elect has squandered one of the most important opportunities to win influence over a chaotic government.

Going down?

Photographer: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

The one constant from the nomination campaign, the general election campaign, and the transition is that most Americans don't like Donald Trump very much. We don't know whether that will change, but it does appear that he's squandered one of the big opportunities for a popularity surge. 

Two new polls both give Trump's approval rating for the transition at 40 percent. The HuffPollster estimate of his "favorable" rating is just a bit higher, at 42 percent. Both are -- by far -- the worst for any president-elect at the end of the transition period during the polling era. We have no numbers for John Q. Adams or Rutherford Hayes, but it seems likely that Trump will take office with the least support among the American people ever.

Yes, he won the presidency anyway. But holding the office doesn't guarantee effectiveness. In fact, it guarantees very little. The constitutional description of the presidency in Article II is vague, and it's possible to imagine a president with hardly any influence over the government -- or a much more skilled president who amasses quite a bit of influence.

Popularity, as Richard Neustadt explained in his classic work Presidential Power, is an important resource presidents can use to get their way. As Neustadt explained, the people who the president deals with -- he calls them "Washingtonians" -- have constituencies of their own. Politicians have voters, lobbyists have employers, interest group leaders have the rank-and-file members of their organizations. Even the people the president appoints for executive branch positions have "constituents" in the bureaucrats, interest groups, and congressional committees who make their jobs easier or harder. All of them care what their constituents think about the president, and are more likely to go along with his requests when they believe he is popular -- and to resist him when they think he is not.

There's a lot of nuance there. For one thing, the key in some cases may be the president's national numbers, and in other cases it might be only the narrow question of what a particular set of constituents think. For another, what matters isn't so much any objective measure of the president's popularity, but what Washingtonians believe about that popularity. Sometimes, the two do not match. For example, during Bill Clinton's second term, many Washingtonians just did not believe the polls which said he was popular and that voters didn't care about the various scandals surrounding him.

This round of awful numbers for Trump, especially if they continue after he finally takes office, might cut through some myths that have worked for him. One is a sense that "nothing matters" -- that bad news about Trump does not damage his political strength. It's true that Trump hasn't alienated his strongest supporters (so far!), but that doesn't mean his bad behavior has no consequences in Washington.

Another is a sense that Trump is some sort of master communicator. Some have asserted that Carrier-style announcements of specific triumphs (even if they turn out to be sketchy on closer look) could make him a popular president; others expect him to use the same approach on terrorism with similarly positive results. And yet even though the Carrier deal polled well, Trump's overall favorable numbers peaked around Thanksgiving and have gradually dropped since then. 

Republican members of Congress, and leaders of Republican-aligned interest groups, may still dismiss the national numbers because Trump remains fairly popular among Republicans. Even there, however, Trump's numbers are weaker than a typical president; the Washington Post/ABC polls finds only 77 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's transition. There is, alas, no magic formula for how politicians or other Washingtonians gauges popularity; they listen to their districts, read polls, compare notes with others in similar situations, and draw their best conclusions about how safe it is to cross -- or agree with -- the president.

A weakened Trump is almost certainly good news for those who fear him as a unique threat to democracy. Those who are worried about the Republican policy agenda, however, may have less reason to cheer. Some Republicans in Congress who become less worried about Trump's hold over their voters might react by working to compromise with Democrats; others, however, might feel freed to carry out a (very) conservative agenda, ignoring Trump's violations of conservative orthodoxy on policy such as trade, infrastructure, and Russia. 

Popularity is only one ingredient which affects whether presidents get their way or not. But almost everything we've seen with Trump so far suggests it's entirely plausible he'll be the least influential president since at least Jimmy Carter. 1 If that's true, it's not just that Congress will tend to ignore him. So will his party and organized groups. And executive branch departments and agencies. And even, perhaps, parts of his own presidential branch -- the White House staff and agencies that are most responsive to presidents. We may be at the beginning of a historically weak presidency. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This is not to say that those worried about Trump as an authoritarian are wrong. It's also plausible that Trump will try to sever the normal limits on presidential power, and it makes sense to guard against any such abuses, even if by normal standards Trump is set up to be a weak president. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.