by Roy C. Smith
With the stock market rallied and his cabinet positions mostly filled, Donald Trump has given New Yorkers a break from the midtown congestion that his presidency-elect has created by relocating to Palm Beach where his signature comings-and-goings have continued at Mar-a-Largo as he contemplates what will be on his plate after January 20.
This, of course, is quite a lot. He promised to do a great many things during his anti-establishment, shake-things-up campaign: A tax cut and reform bill, the repeal and replacement of Obama-care, the dismantling of Dodd-Frank, increased spending for public infrastructure and defense, and the cancellation of hundreds of executive orders issued by the Obama administration. That and renegotiating NAFTA, erecting the wall, sorting out unfair trade practices by the Chinese, and defeating ISIS.
But, Mr. Trump will soon experience a reality of Washington life that the colorful, long-serving former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill pointed out - that “running for office is much easier than running the office.”
From Jimmy Carter on, every incoming president except George H. W. Bush had no experience of government at the national level when taking office. Nor had many of their key advisers, though Mr. Trump’s key advisers as a group will be far less experienced in governing than any of the other administrations.
Tip O’Neill also is reported to have said that if a president is popular there are few limits on what can get done. That would be because Congress is a weather vane for popular opinion. If it points to a tax cut, as it did for Ronald Reagan in 1981, then Democrats compete with Republicans for getting credit in delivering one.
Popularity has to be defined, however, as being beyond the base – i.e., having a majority support from voters, broad support from one’s own party, and preferably some support on important issues by members of the opposition party. Only twice in the last 100 years has the winner of the vote in the Electoral College (established in the Constitution to apportion votes by states) actually not received a majority of the popular vote – In 2000, Al Gore received 0.51% more votes than George W. Bush, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 2.09% more popular votes than Mr. Trump.
However, Presidential popularity is usually measured by job approval ratings from professionally conducted polls. The Gallup Organization has conducted such polls since 1945, and divides then into a president’s first and second four-year terms (4 of the last 12 presidents had only one term). Most of what most presidents accomplish is accomplished in the first term, after which (in 9 of 12 cases) – their job approval ratings declined.
The following is the Gallup first-term job approval ratings for the last 12 presidents:
Lyndon Johnson 74%
John Kennedy* 70
Dwight Eisenhower 69.6
George W. Bush 62
George H.W. Bush* 61
Richard Nixon 56
Harry Truman 56
Ronald Reagan 50
Bill Clinton 49.6
Barack Obama 49
Gerald Ford* 47
Jimmy Carter* 45.5
* One-term Presidents
Mr. Trump does not yet have a job approval rating, but his popular support was measured at 41% in national polls just before Christmas.
Job approval measures, of course, also reflect unexpected events - wars, terrorist attacks, economic problems, civil disasters, etc. Presidents can be lucky (Reagan, Clinton) to step into office just as a sharp economic recovery had begun, or unlucky to assume office when the economy is collapsing (Carter, Obama). Still, America’s greatest presidents are still seen to be those who guided the country through very difficult times (Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt).
Of the 12 presidencies noted above, seven began with the president’s party controlling both house of Congress, which helps a lot in getting things done. But, holding on to that control is another thing, the last four presidencies began with control of Congress but lost it in subsequent elections.
This may be because of two relatively new elements in modern political life: first a deep cynicism about the ability of federal government to make much of anything better; government is run by self-serving politicians who let partisan or parochial interests get in the way of improving the common good. The 56.6% turnout in the 2016 presidential election suggests that a very large percent of the electorate no longer think their votes will change anything.
The other element is that a significant percentage of those who do vote are focused on just a few main issues to which they are passionately committed – to the point of being uncompromising.
Because of a quirk of Electoral College voting allocation, Mr. Trump won the election with the support of only 47.9% of 56.6% of eligible voters (i.e., only 27.2% of the total electorate, some of which voted for Trump only because they liked Hillary less). This is hardly the popular landslide Tip O’Neill had in mind.
And as of January 20th, Mr. Trump is going to have to start running the office. In significant part this means delivering at least some of what he promised to the disillusioned and discontented part of the electorate that turned to him to shake things up. But, it is hard to turn what he has called “disasters” (the economy, health care, nuclear treaties, trade policy, military activity in the Middle East) into “beautiful” things.
This would be a tall order even if there were clear cut plans waiting to be taken to a supportive Congress. Given the mercurial support recent Congressional majorities have received from voters, Mr. Trump must keep his eye on maintaining Republican control in the Senate, which contains many Republicans who strongly opposed Mr. Trump’s nomination and who must run for reelection in two-years. If he loses their support, or if voters shift control of the Senate to Democrats, he will be left with nothing much but reversible executive orders to establish his legacy with, just like Mr. Obama.
Governing is hard enough. Doing it with a government of anti-establishment types without governing experience is even harder. But the economy may be picking up on its own, the markets have been very supportive of Trump policies so far, and it may be that the best solutions to today’s difficult problems are those achieved by compromise, or trial and error, and deal men like Donald Trump know how to do both.