Politics

The Least Popular President

Trump asked to be president of only some of the people in his inaugural address. It looks like he's getting his wish.

How low can his approvals go?

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The numbers are in, and we can call it now: Donald Trump has the worst approval numbers of any first-week president of the polling era. By far. It's not close.

The current HuffPollster estimate has 39 percent approving of his brand-new presidency and 41 percent disapproving. 1 That's stunning. Barack Obama, hardly the most popular president, never fell below 42 percent approval according to that average at any point of his eight years in office. 

Gallup's first reading had Trump at 45 percent approval, 45 percent disapproval. The previous low for approval had been Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both of whom started off at 51 percent. That's a decent-sized gap, but the difference in disapproval is enormous; the old record holder was George W. Bush, at 25 percent. Every previous president, that is, entered office with at least half of the nation giving him good grades and most of everyone else waiting to see how he would do. Trump has fewer fans, and way more people who already have turned against him. 

Trump has practically no support among Democrats, ranging from 4 to 18 percent approval among them in the five polls so far that give party breakdowns. He's apparently just above 80 percent among Republicans, which isn't especially good; Obama regularly cleared 90 percent among Democrats. With only a handful of polls, it's best not to put too much stock in any of the subsamples, but it may be worth noting that somewhere between one in 10 and one in 20 Republicans currently give him a thumbs-down. Not much, but still extraordinary for a new Republican president. 

Will it matter?

Yes, it will. Already, Democrats are eager to oppose the president. We're seeing an unusually high number of leaks from the new administration; some of that could be a result of White House chaos, but it's also likely the federal bureaucracy is already beginning to fight back against Trump, and the fact that he's not well-liked out in the nation can only embolden them. Remember, signing an executive order is one thing; getting the appropriate departments and agencies to carry it out can be quite another. 

In Congress, Republicans will likely increasingly ignore the president if they are convinced he's unpopular. That won't always make Democrats happy -- House Republicans will if anything react to an unpopular president by sticking even more to their very conservative agenda. But there are quite a few Republican senators who have some potential to break from Trump on particular issues, and they're more likely to do that if they think he's unpopular. 

Meanwhile, all high-visibility Republicans will be more likely to criticize him when he acts out on Twitter or in interviews, which can have the effect of further hurting his popularity. 2  It's even increasingly possible, if his numbers stay awful or even get worse, that one or more Republican committee chair will decide to hold hearings on Trump's tax returns or his conflict-of-interest issues; those already planning to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election will tend to be less careful to steer away from the Trump campaign and more willing to get aggressive even if it reflects badly on the White House. 

And don't forget the electoral component of all of this. Bad White House approval numbers now will yield a better crop of Democratic candidates in 2018 up and down the ballot -- and weaker Republican candidates, who will wait until a more promising year for their party. Potential gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates are deciding right now, so these early numbers will be all they have to go on. 

Don't expect anything dramatic, particularly if he can at least stay at more or less his current level. Republicans, no matter how unpopular the president gets, will still worry about his ability to disrupt their re-election campaigns. And they won't want to push his approval numbers even lower, since that will tend to demoralize Republican voters (and hurt their turnout rate). There's also no reason to believe a bad start means he'll always be at record low levels.

For now, though? Trump asked to be president of only some of the people in his inaugural address. It looks like he's getting his wish. 

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

  1. HuffPollster estimates can be fairly unstable with limited data, but Trump's approval number is almost certainly below 45 percent. And there's always the chance that it's actually lower than it appears. 

  2. No, Republican voters don't love congressional Republicans. But to the extent they receive mixed messages about what Republicans think, they'll wind up having mixed responses. See: George W. Bush, 2005-2008. 

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

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