Real Clear Politics’ aggregate of polling data tells a consistent story. Trump is not popular. The polls tend to show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing. Gallup has Trump at 41% approval and 53% disapproval. CBS News has him at 39 – 51%. Reuters pegs the split at 45 -50%. Even the Fox News and Rasmussen polls, which have Trump above water (Fox 48-47% ; Rasmussen 53-47%), shows Trump under-performing the numbers we would expect of a new President. At this stage in their presidencies, Barack Obama and George W. Bush were both well-above even, and while both men eventually fell (though Obama rose back to strong approval in the last year of his presidency), they did so after years of governing.
One objection, an objection the President himself would raise, is that the polls were very wrong in predicting the outcome of the 2016 election, so they cannot be trusted now. Because most polls showed Trump losing, we have to assume they are off now. This is the wrong lesson to draw from the 2016 election. On November 7, the day before the election, national polls had Hillary Clinton winning a 4-candidate race by between 3 and 4 points. Clinton ended up winning the national popular vote by 2.1%, well within the margin of error. The polls that got the election wrong were not the national polls, which largely showed a comfortable, though not overwhelming, Clinton victory, but rather the state polls in places like Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, polls showed a week to two weeks before the election that Clinton was supposed to win by about 6.5 points, according to the Real Clear Politics Average. In the end, Trump carried the state by less than a percentage point. Why this discrepancy occurred is unclear, but it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between national polls, which were fairly accurate, and certain state polls, which were quite off. Presidential approval polls are national polls, and while it’s good not to read too much into any one poll, it’s also reasonable to trust them when most of them are telling you roughly the same thing.
Another objection is that these polls don’t really matter. No election is being held based on them, and the President doesn’t have to be popular in order to get stuff done. To an extent, this is true, but it’s also true that if Trump wants to deliver on his promises, and especially if he wants to be seen as a successful president, he will need help from Congress, and that requires spending political capital. Right now, congressional Republicans are tied to Trump, and whether or not they are able to come through with their side of the bargain depends in large part on having the political leeway to do it. If they become afraid of getting voted out of office because the leader of their party is unpopular, they may well ratchet back their ambitions and try to distance themselves from him. Right now, Republicans have unified control of the Federal government, but that could change if they lose the House next year, something that becomes more likely if the President is wildly unpopular.
Of course, losing Congress isn’t a death knell, by any means. Bill Clinton lost the House in 1994, and went on to accomplish a number of things anyways. Barack Obama lost the House in 2010, and still won re-election in 2012. Trump could lose the House, and be fine, but nobody would argue that losing the House would be a good outcome for Trump. It would be an obstacle he’d have to overcome. It’s better for him if he just keeps the House, and that’s easier if he himself is more popular. He would be wise not to dismiss these numbers out of hand because he doesn’t like them. There are a number of things he could do to become more popular.
- Stop tweeting, or hand over tweeting to someone else. The tweets play well with a section of his base, but I suspect that for the majority of Americans, the tweeting induces eye-rolling and nervousness. Four years of tweeting about how lame CNN is will not play well with most voters.
- Release his tax returns, assuming they’re clean. If his tax returns are clean, there’s really nothing but upside to releasing them. It would take away one of his opponents’ most effective charges against him. It would make his opponents look bad, and it would make him look good. Now, of course, if there is something damaging or truly embarrassing in them, then the smart political move is to do exactly what he’s doing and not release them.
- Make infrastructure or tax reform his legislative priority. Taking away peoples’ health insurance is not popular. Cutting taxes and building stuff is popular, and it plays to the perception that Trump is smart about money and is good at taking on big, ambitious projects. He could call for some face-saving measures on Obamacare in order to say he did something and then move on to doing stuff people actually like.
- Stop talking about the election. Again, I’m just guessing, but I imagine that constantly reliving the election grates on most people, and makes him look like a sore winner who can’t let things go. He’d look better if he just left it alone.
- Reduce his reliance on the Bannon-wing of the White House. The most controversial and unpleasant parts of Trumpism align with the ambitions of Steve Bannon. On most issues, Trump has never pretended to be an ideologue wed to any particular vision of the country he wants, so he could just not do the really controversial stuff and stick to achieving things people like. If he became less radioactive, he might even pick up some support from congressional Democrats along the way. In a word, it would be terrific.
I don’t expect Trump to do any of these things, because he has never demonstrated an ability to regroup and shift gears. Trump will be Trump, for better and for worse.