President Trump has been in office for three days, and on Monday he got his first job approval rating. Forty-five percent of Americans approve of Trump’s job performance; 45 percent disapprove, according to Gallup. That’s an improvement on his low favorability ratings, but it’s not good. Indeed, it’s the lowest job approval rating for any new president since at least Harry Truman in 1945 (as far back as we have polling), and it suggests Trump failed to take full advantage of the transition period to build support.
Every president before Trump started their first term with the approval of a majority of the country.
|FIRST JOB APPROVAL RATINGS|
|1989||George H.W. Bush||51||6||+45|
|2001||George W. Bush||57||25||+32|
The average president had a first job approval rating of 66 percent — 21 percentage points better than Trump’s. Trump also faces far more opposition coming into office than previous presidents. The average disapproval rating before Trump was just 10 percent. Trump’s is 35 percentage points higher than that.
The inflated level of opposition to Trump at the start of his term could be explained, in part, by increased political polarization. George W. Bush, with a 25 percent disapproval rating in 2001, held the previous record for start-of-term opposition. Bush, of course, was the last president to win the White House without a plurality of the national popular vote. But Trump’s lack of support isn’t all down to polarization. Barack Obama entered office in 2009 with a disapproval rating of 12 percent, and politics was pretty polarized then. No matter what way you look at it, Trump is quite unpopular compared to the historical average.
Has Trump’s rocky transition hurt him? Not as much as you might think. Typically, an incoming president — especially a narrowly elected one — uses the time between Election Day and inauguration to salve campaign wounds and unify the country. And traditionally presidents see a jump from their first net favorability rating after the election to their first net approval rating after taking office. Trump’s transition (and inauguration), by contrast, has seemed at times to be simply a continuation of the campaign. Still, he has seen some improvement. He had a -13 percentage point net favorability rating in Gallup’s first poll after the election, and he has a net approval rating of 0 points now. That’s not too different than the average rise of 15 percentage points for first term presidents since 1980.1 So despite Trump’s abnormal transition, he still got a pretty normal bump in popularity.
Of course, Trump was so unpopular to begin with that his team was probably hoping for an above average Election Day-to-inauguration popularity boost. He had much more room for improvement compared with other newly elected presidents after all. And in fact, the less popular president-elects have tended to see the biggest transition-period increases in support. Bill Clinton, for example, had the second-lowest net favorability for a newly elected president, +20 percentage points, and started his presidency with a net approval rating of +38 points. Trump was less popular than Clinton to begin with and still got a smaller post-election bounce.
The good news for Trump is that there’s plenty of time for him to right the ship. Many presidents — including every Republican since Dwight Eisenhower save for Gerald Ford — have seen their approval rating rise, at least momentarily, from their first job approval rating. Trump’s going to need it.