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Trump’s Handling Of North Korea Has Been One Of The Few Things Americans Liked About His Presidency

President Trump’s decision to cancel his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (for now1) isn’t just a blow to a major policy goal of Trump’s (stopping North Korea’s nuclear program) or the president’s ego (his supporters were talking about Trump winning a Nobel Peace Prize). It could have a clear political downside too.

Polling shows that more Americans disapprove than approve of Trump’s handling of a whole host of issues. On immigration, trade and other policy areas, Trump gets net negative marks. But then there’s North Korea.

Trump’s handling of North Korea has been popular

Average percentage of Americans who approve or disapprove of Trump’s handling of different issues

Approve Disapprove Diff
North Korea 52.0% 38.7% +13.3
Economy 48.0 46.0 +2.0
Terrorism* 47.0 48.0 -1.0
Taxes* 46.0 47.0 -1.0
Syria* 44.0 46.0 -2.0
China* 42.0 48.0 -6.0
Trade 41.0 48.7 -7.7
Iran* 37.0 46.0 -9.0
Overall job performance 42.2 52.6 -10.4
Foreign policy 40.5 53.0 -12.5
Immigration 40.7 55.7 -15.0
Russia* 36.0 56.0 -20.0
His Cabinet* 30.0 55.0 -25.0

*Based on only one poll
Note: Trump’s overall approval and disapproval numbers are according to FiveThirtyEight’s approval ratings tracker and are as of 12 p.m. Eastern on May 24. The other figures are according to an average of polls taken since April.

Source: Polling report

Fifty-two percent of Americans liked how Trump was handling the North Korea issue, according to an average of polls taken since April,2 compared with just 39 percent who disapproved. I’m not sure 52 percent of people would approve of Trump eating eggs at breakfast, as polls suggest a plurality of Americans oppose virtually anything he does. North Korea and the economy are the only issues on which he gets net positive marks (and only barely on the economy).3

But Trump’s shift from aggressive rhetoric to potential peacemaking with North Korea was clearly well-received by American voters. Sixty-six percent of Americans approved of Trump’s decision to have direct talks with Kim, while only 27 percent disagreed, an April poll by Quinnipiac University found. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in late April and early May found that 71 percent of Americans approved of direct talks with North Korea, compared with just 21 percent who did not. In other words, Trump had found an idea that even some Democrats liked — something I had begun to think was not possible.

Foreign policy experts were more skeptical about the idea of direct diplomacy with Kim. On the substance, they may have been correct — Kim is probably not going to give up his nuclear program (Trump’s chief demand). But I can see why Trump really wanted this summit. If he could have reached some kind of deal with Kim, polls suggest that the public, even some Democrats, would have viewed that favorably. The president’s backers were already touting the slogan “peace and prosperity” for the GOP to run on in 2018 and 2020. And Trump’s overall approval rating has been rising of late — perhaps a bit of that upward trend was due to the diplomatic push on North Korea.

American voters aren’t particularly obsessed with foreign policy, so I’m not saying a deal with Kim would have guaranteed Trump a second term. And I’m sure that even with some kind of denuclearization of North Korea, Democrats would not forget the many other reasons they hate Trump. But North Korea policy was a clear place for Trump to appeal to voters who might not agree with him on much else — an issue without clearly drawn party lines, like immigration or guns. In short, the politics of Trump’s North Korea push were good for him, so it matters if he can’t get this negotiating process going again.

Julia Wolfe contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. The move could be intended to stop Kim from demanding concessions from the U.S. as a precondition for the meeting to occur.

  2. By Quinnipiac Univesity, CBS News and CNN.

  3. At least among issues pollsters have been asking about over the past couple of months.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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