Numbers can help put a change in administration into perspective. The contrast in the style of leadership between outgoing President Barack Obama and incoming President-elect Donald Trump is obvious. Six decades of polling from Gallup show something additional: the most abrupt decline ever recorded of public approval of the person in the White House.
As judged by popular opinion at the end of his term, President Obama is regarded about as well as Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, and nearly as well as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who historians rank in the top quartile of presidents. And Bill Clinton actually topped all recent outgoing presidents in popularity.
We won't have a job approval number for Trump yet until he is sworn in. But we do have a closely related survey number, his personal approval. Trump has the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in decades. In the past, presidents started out with majority approval—that even includes Richard Nixon, who is remembered for his ignominious ending in the Watergate scandal. Now, for the first time, fewer than half of Americans—43 percent—approve of the president-elect. Nixon ended up with lower approval—but Trump is not president yet, so he still has time to break that record.
The change from Obama to Trump, a drop of 14 percentage points, is a rare instance of a decrease in approval, and it is the largest decline on record. (The only transition that comes close is the 12-point drop from Reagan to the first President Bush.) Trump's low approval cuts across Republican, independent, and Democratic voters. Usually, new presidents pick up near-unanimous support from their own party and muster close to one-third of the opposition. But Trump is lagging by 10 to 20 percentage points in all three groups. Perhaps it is for this reason that Trump says that his support among Democrats “will only get higher.”
Many people attribute Trump's victory to Hillary Clinton’s low personal favorability. However, her low numbers reflect a more general trend that is not specific to her: The net favorability of major-party candidates, defined as favorable minus unfavorable, has declined precipitously over the last 60 years among both winners and losers.
From 1952 to 1976, candidates had a median rating of 58 percent net favorable, which means that with only a few exceptions, both winning and losing candidates still had the public's high regard. But from 2004 to 2012, that regard deteriorated: Candidates dropped to a median of 23 percent net favorable. And in 2016, for the first time, both the Democratic and Republican candidate had higher unfavorable than favorable numbers—a negative net favorability.
This decline is a major symptom of the polarization that has gripped U.S. politics for decades. Increasingly, voters see the opposition as totally unacceptable. Under such conditions, it becomes harder to detect genuine differences in candidates or to act upon them. High negatives make crossover voting unthinkable.
Consider the public’s view of the two most recently defeated major-party presidential candidates. As measured by Gallup, the public viewed both Mitt Romney and Clinton, who both lost by only narrowly margins, as negatively as it viewed Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, who both lost by wide margins. Under today’s polarized conditions, a losing presidential candidate in a close election faces as much public disapproval as yesterday’s landslide loser.
Obama’s high approval ratings today are especially impressive in light of the general decline in favorability of partisan political leaders. But Obama may be looking better to people as they contemplate Trump’s move into the Oval Office.
Half of Americans are skeptical about Trump’s readiness for the presidency. This is a 30-point decrease in confidence from the public’s view of the three previous presidents-elect, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. Majorities express doubt about Trump’s ability to prevent major scandals, use military force wisely, or handle an international crisis. In contrast, substantial majorities of Americans thought Hillary Clinton did have these abilities—but Trump still won enough votes to scratch out an electoral win.
Elections are supposed to produce presidents who at least start out with majority public support. This year, Americans are getting a president with the shakiest base of public approval in modern history. If those low ratings continue or worsen, it will be interesting to see how Congress deals with a president who enjoys so little trust from the public at large.