President Trump entered the White House with the lowest approval ratings any president has had when taking office, and though his numbers went up for a few weeks, a new Gallup Poll has his approval rating at a new historic low – 37%. The question is, with the next presidential election nearly four years away, does it matter? The answer is yes – this is a real problem. Here’s why.
First, it is important to note that two factors seem to be able to keep approval ratings above or below their natural level for long periods: the economy and media coverage. To a lesser degree, unemployment and inflation have historically altered approval ratings. For Trump, this seems to be a wash. Though the economy is moving in a positive direction, clearly the media is predisposed to attack Trump as never seen in modern political history.
America’s current partisan divide further burdens the president’s numbers. Democrats in Congress are not going to work with him and Democrats at large are solidly against him, even if they don’t know why.
Here’s why low poll numbers matter. Any major policy initiative requires that the president work with people who pay attention to them. High approval ratings give a president a great deal of leverage over members of Congress. Under unpopular presidents, big policy changes – tax reform, immigration reform, health care reform – often force legislators to choose between what their district wants them to do and what the president or Congress wants them to do. A popular president can help to ease the burden of an unpopular vote; an unpopular president has to accept what Congress wants to pass if he wants to sign any bills at all.
A president can have real power to shape the future of the country, but that only comes with popularity. An unpopular president is more likely to find himself hemmed in by protests, like Johnson and Nixon in their later years – or like Carter, so ignored by Congress and his own administration that he spent his time approving the White House tennis schedules.
If President Trump wants to avoid their fate, he’ll need to change something dramatically. We’ll soon find out whether he can.
About the Author
Dan Cassino is an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, researching public opinion and political psychology. His new book, Fox News and American Politics, will be released at the end of April.