Trump's speech may give him a bump, but his underlying popularity is historically low

Keith Gaby

The day after Donald Trump’s speech to Congress, his administration remains one of the most chaotic presidential launches in American history.

In the past month, intelligence agencies have reportedly been withholding information from the White House for fear of it being passed on to Moscow, a senior general has publicly fretted about the stability of the government, and the president has created daily distractions with tweets and false information.

By historical standards, this president is deeply unpopular. Like any commander-in-chief, he’ll get a bump from his speech to Congress – the setting, lack of real time rebuttal, and low expectations will help his poll numbers in the short term.

But the underlying facts of the public’s view of Trump are more stable, raising questions about whether he’ll be able to get Congress to support his policies. Just yesterday, leading Republicans in both houses called his budget “dead on arrival” and his environmental cuts unrealistic. 

Trump missed his honeymoon

A recent CNN poll taken in February showed that just 44 percent of the American people believe he is doing a good job – in what should be his “honeymoon” period. By contrast, a majority of Americans approved of the job performance of the last nine newly elected presidents in their first months in office, averaging a positive rating of 61 percent.

There were almost as many people, 43 percent, who had “strongly” negative feelings as percentage that approved of him at all. How does that compare with former presidents?

At this point in their first terms, strong disapproval was Reagan 9 percent, Clinton 16 percent, Bush 9 percent and Obama 18 percent. In other words, intense feelings against Trump are more than triple the average of four of his immediate predecessors.

Since intensity drives activism and voting in mid-term elections, this is a dangerous sign for the president and his allies in Congress.

Americans disagree with his enviro policies

The administration’s early moves on environmental policy will not likely be met with favor. During the campaign, Trump said he would dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate 70 percent of government rules and safeguards.

The leader of his EPA transition suggested cutting the agency’s staff by two-thirds and the president nominated a famous opponent of clean air and water rules, Scott Pruitt, to lead the EPA. But polling suggests moves like these will not sit well, even with those who voted for Trump. A Morning Consult poll revealed that 78 percent of Trump voters want the same or stronger federal limits on air pollution.

Trump has also said he is not a “big believer” in climate change and wants to end the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon pollution. But the same poll showed that 61 percent of his voters want to “require U.S. companies to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.”

The public at large, of course, is even less disposed to giving industry whatever it wants. A Quinnipiac Poll found that just 39 percent of voters want the administration to “remove regulations on businesses and corporations,” and only 29 percent want to end rules “designed to limit climate change.”

Trump’s missteps could haunt Congress

Until the next presidential election, the most important impact of the president’s unpopularity will be the effect it has on members of Congress. With his party in control of both houses, and 10 Democratic senators from Trump states up for re-election in 2018, a popular president should be able to push through his agenda.

But Congress is watching the spectacle at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue warily. Aligning themselves with a failing president is a dangerous thing.

However, they are not ready to abandon him yet. Because a primary challenge is often the greatest threat to their political careers, most members of the House and Senate focus on views within their own party.

The missteps of the administration will eventually begin to drag on voters.

At the moment, nearly 90 percent of Republican voters are sticking with Trump.

But even in a highly partisan atmosphere, the missteps of the administration will eventually begin to drag on voters who are now giving Trump the benefit of the doubt as a fellow Republican.

Despite all that’s happened and historically low approval ratings, the Trump administration still threatens our most important environmental protections. With just executive powers, he could sharply curtail enforcement and strip away important safeguards.

But the president’s initial unpopularity, and the incompetence of his White House staff, provide progressives with a unique opportunity to limit the damage.