Trump poll numbers reflect ignorance of supporters’ priorities
Donald Trump's presidency has fallen into a precarious retreat precisely because he has been ignoring two iron rules of presidential success.
The first rule is that presidents place their re-elections in peril when they govern based upon why they wanted voters support, rather than why voters actually elected them in the first place. The second rule is Richard Neustadt's admonition from his classic treatise, "Presidential power is the power to persuade."
Gallup's daily tracking poll at the end of March showed Trump's job approval cratering to 35 percent as did a recent Quinnipiac poll. That decline is significant, because no president has been able to win re-election (Jimmy Carter's low was 28 percent and George H.W. Bush 29 percent) or have their party win the next presidential election (in their second term's Harry Truman's low was 22 percent, Nixon at 24 percent and George W. Bush 25 percent), after their Gallup job approval rating dipped below 35 percent.
Consequently, will Trump rebound or continue to decline in the polls becomes a seminal question? President Trump's decisive air strike in Syria, in response to the Assad regime's slaughter of innocents via chemical weapons, could boost his standing in the short-term, but the acid test remains persuading the American people and the world that there is an enduring strategy behind the air strike in Syria.
The Trump administration's sequencing of their governing initiatives has been startlingly inept. Any analysis overlaying exit polling with actual voting returns, leads straight to the conclusion that voters wanted Trump to have a laser-like focus on the economy, while keeping the homeland safe from terrorism and bringing security to an unstable world.
But instead of rolling out a domestic agenda on jobs and economic growth, the Trump administration inexplicably placed infrastructure on the back burner. Moreover, Trump has gone down rabbit hole after rabbit hole: the administration pursued a divisive refugee ban so far barred by the courts, embraced a health care bill that could not pass the House, generated needless provocations with allies (Australia, Germany and Great Britain), while getting ever more entangled in an investigation of campaign collusion with Russia, not to mention several self-inflicted wounds undermining the President's credibility. Is it any wonder that Trump's public support sounds like air escaping a blown tire?
The Trump administration wanted public support for his priorities of building a wall, a refugee ban and the quick repeal and replacement of the ACA. Meanwhile polls show that public support was not behind any of these policy thrusts.
The Trump administration wanted public support for his priorities of building a wall, a refugee ban and the quick repeal and replacement of the ACA. Meanwhile polls show that public support was not behind any of these policy thrusts. A Quinnipiac poll showed only 17 percent supported the Trump-Ryan health care bill and by 80 to 14 percent opposed the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which was included in that bill.
From the first stirrings of the transition, through the debacle on health care, Trump has not sought to expand his public support beyond his base. The result has been a steady decline in the president’s public prestige.
Poll ratings are just a tool, not an end in itself, because as Neustadt wrote, "The essence of a President's persuasive task, with congressmen and everybody else, is to induce them to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interest, not his."
Trump's declining poll ratings tied to his repeated tactical mistakes have not led Republican members of Congress to fear his wrath, instead it has left his congressional allies wary of walking the plank for him, while emboldening Democrats to believe that opposing Trump's initiatives reflects sound policy and smart politics.
Neustadt may have been a professor, but his advice carried the sagacity of a grizzled political professional, "The Presidency is no place for amateurs."
Neustadt also observed, "The greatest danger to a President's potential influence . . . is not the show of incapacity he makes today, but its apparent kinship to what happened yesterday, last month, last year. For if his failures seem to form a pattern, the consequence is bound to be a loss of faith in his effectiveness next time. The boy who cried wolf came to a sad end because nobody paid attention to his final cry."
Ironically, Republicans are more nervous than Democrats, silently praying that Trump will internalize Neustadt's wisdom connecting these two iron rules of presidential politics: persuasively making progress on the public's priorities. To date, those prayers have gone unanswered.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.