Trump's Next 100 Days Challenge

AWalter Head
April 24, 2017

So, here we are at President Trump’s first 100 day mark.  As we’ve been reminded over and over again this week, Trump, when compared to presidents past, is the most unpopular at this stage of his presidency. Despite the president’s boasts of productivity and his own self-imposed 100-day deadlines, he’s got little to show for his first few months in Washington.

But, as you may recall from 2016, the traditional metrics, rules, and standards all predicted Trump’s demise — multiple times. Spoiler alert: they were wrong. So why do we think this arbitrary “rule” is going to accurately predict his future success?

Here’s a better way to look at Trump 100 days into his job. Most presidents start with a deep well of good will and support. Over the course of their first few months in office they gradually draw down on that reservoir to get stuff done. This president, of course, has a different challenge. Trump is starting at the bottom of the well and he’s got to find a way to fill it up. 

It’s always important to remember that the 2016 election featured the two most unpopular candidates of the modern era. Whoever won would start their tenure as the most unpopular president-elect in modern times. The question was whether this incredibly unpopular person could become more accepted — or at least less disliked? Trump has failed that test thus far. But, how confident are we that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have had the honor of being the most unpopular at this stage in her presidency had she won? She might not be as low at Trump’s 40 percent approval rating. But, would she be as high as the next lowest? Since World War II, the lowest presidential job approval rating for an elected president 100 days in was President Bill Clinton at 59 percent. President Ford, who succeeded (and pardoned) President Nixon clocked it at 48 percent. Given how hardened partisanship is today, and the fact she’d be facing a divided Congress, it’s certainly more likely that Hillary Clinton's approval ratings would be closer to Ford or President Bill Clinton than to Presidents Obama (69 percent) or Reagan (73 percent).

So, the essential question is whether Trump can find a way to fill up that proverbial well of good-will and support. His behavior suggests it’s going to be tough.  He’s done nothing to lessen the polarization and partisanship that defined the 2016 campaign. He’s provided no incentives to Democrats to help him. The GOP majority in Congress remains ideologically, strategically and temperamentally divided, and he seems unwilling or unable to bridge and heal those divides. 

 The other thing that will determine Trump’s fate — and that of his party in the midterm elections — is the state of the economy. The good news for the GOP is that voters aren’t as sour on the economy as they have been in the recent past. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that “those who say the economy is getting better outnumber those who say it’s getting worse by the biggest margin in 15 years in Post-ABC polling.” Meanwhile, almost half — 49 percent — think the economy is staying the same. That’s much higher than normal as well, suggesting that lots of folks are parking themselves here in a wait and see mode. If things improve - they’ll head into “better”, but if they don’t, they’ll go into the “getting worse” bucket. In other words, it’s too soon to say voters have judged Trump to be a success. It’s fairer to say that they are waiting to see if he will be.   

Here’s the other important way to look at Trump’s current polling. Instead of comparing him to where presidents were at the beginning of their term, compare him to where other presidents were going into their first mid-term election. And, this is where things look grim for President Trump and his party. Going into the 2006 election, Gallup pegged George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent. The GOP lost control of both houses of Congress that election. Right now, Trump’s overall approval ratings are in that range at 40 to 42 percent.   

The other thing dragging down Bush was a public pessimism on the economy. That, as I wrote earlier, is not plaguing this president. An ABC/Washington Post poll from mid-October 2006, found that 45 percent of voters believed the economy was getting worse and just 17 percent said they thought it was getting better. Pew Research polling from the fall of 2006 found that on the question of which party would do a better job dealing with the economy, Democrats led by 13 points — 45 percent to 32 percent. An April 2017 Pew poll found Republicans with a narrow lead on the question of which party could best handle the economy at 46 to 43 percent.   

While various historians, pundits and party leaders opine about what Trump did or didn’t do in the first 100 days of his presidency, I think what he does (or doesn’t do) in the next 100 are much more important. He came into office both incredibly unpopular and totally unprepared. He and his inexperienced team are on the learning curve of a lifetime. But, they’ve got significant structural advantages. His party has total control of government. Americans are more optimistic — or at least less pessimistic — about the state of the economy. Another few months from now, if he’s still flopping, then we can talk about the big problems ahead for him — and especially his party — going into 2018.