Analysis

Donald Trump's transition has hurt his popularity, not helped

Donald Trump’s transition to the presidency has seen his popularity decline, not expand, and he will enter the White House on Friday far weaker in that regard than any president in decades.

Trump is unique among the last seven presidents-elect: He is the only one whose popularity dropped between election day and his swearing-in, according to several new polls. 

In surveys released Tuesday, Trump’s popularity was half that of President Obama’s as he was sworn in in 2009, and far below even that of George W. Bush, who took office in 2001 after a Supreme Court battle that ended with a partisan split on the high court just weeks before Inauguration Day.

Trump does retain the confidence of a majority of Americans polled when it comes to fiscal issues — improving the economy, creating jobs, and dealing with the budget deficit. But they do not approve of how he has handled accusations that Russia tried to interfere in the election, and that appears to be among the things that have hurt him.

More Americans side with the intelligence community, which agrees that Russia did try to boost Trump’s chances, than with Trump, who has spent much of the new year in a dramatic public spat with the nation’s spy agencies.

The narrow focus of Trump’s transition — appealing to those who already supported him while ignoring those who did not — has cost him. Partisans have hardened their views, denying Trump the chance to make inroads among Democrats. 

Independent voters likewise seem skeptical of the president-elect.

Trump on Tuesday continued what has been routine for him: to praise polls when they show him ahead, as they did for much of the primary season, and dismiss them as biased when their results are not kind to him.“The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls,” he tweeted early Tuesday. “They are rigged just like before.”

In fact, national presidential polls done by the same groups measuring Trump now were largely accurate, diverging only slightly from Hillary Clinton’s 2.1 percentage-point popular vote victory.

Poll ratings matter for a president. Weak popularity at the beginning of a presidency doesn’t necessarily doom it. But the ability to come into office with the backing of a huge swath of Americans can help keep members of Congress and others in the political establishment in line.

Trump can call Republicans to his aid — a not-insignificant power when the party controls both sides of Capitol Hill. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 76% of Republican respondents had a favorable view of Trump, and 44% of his party members strongly supported him.

Still, almost 1 in 5 Republicans had an unfavorable view of the man whose victory gave the party unified control of Washington. And he has not appealed to enough other voters to make up for that: Only 10% of Democratic respondents gave him positive marks, as did 43% of independents, the Post/ABC poll found. 

Three polls released Tuesday — from the Washington Post/ABC, CNN/ORC and NBC/Wall Street Journal — each found about 4 in 10 Americans surveyed approved of Trump. That compared with 79% approval for Obama, 48% for Bush, 68% for Bill Clinton, 65% for George H.W. Bush, 58% for Ronald Reagan and 78% for Carter in Post/ABC polls taken at equivalent times. 

All of the previous presidents except Reagan saw double-digit jumps between the percentage of Americans who voted for them in November and the percentage with a positive view of them just before they were sworn in. In Reagan’s case, the increase was 7 points.

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Trump, however, has fallen somewhat from the 46% of the electorate that he won two months ago. His standing as he starts his presidency, according to the Post/ABC poll, is slightly lower than the worst ratings ever given to Obama — 42% at two rocky points in his presidency.

The contrast between Trump’s decline and the increase the other presidents-elect enjoyed suggests that a more graceful and embracing transition period better fits the desires of Americans when the job turns from winning a campaign to governing a nation.

Yet in crafting the tone of his transition, the president-elect has stuck to the pattern of his campaign — reveling in the embrace of his loyalists and forcefully returning any criticism, even if it comes from a civil rights hero, as demonstrated by his weekend feud with Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat.In the CNN/ORC poll, 53% of Americans surveyed said Trump’s statements since the election had given them less confidence in his presidency, compared with 37% who said they now had more confidence in Trump.

In the Post/ABC poll, 40% of respondents said they approved of how Trump had handled his transition, the same percentage as approved of him personally. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a similar 44% approved of Trump’s transition.

The figures were sharply polarized this year — Trump won only 11% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans — in a way they were not in 2009, when Obama’s transition was praised by 94% of his own party and 62% of Republicans. Among independents polled, 80% of whom favored Obama’s transition, only 42% said the same about Trump’s.

A central feature of the final weeks of Trump’s transition, and perhaps central to its difficulties, has been his battle with the intelligence community.

In responding to allegations of Russian efforts to influence the election, Trump has never utilized what might have been a middle-ground approach — condemning foreign interference while contending that it did not cost Hillary Clinton the election. Instead, apparently seeing the issue as an insult to his legitimacy, he cast doubt on the intelligence community’s verdict.

His war with them reached an unheard-of level last week when Trump, without proof, blamed the release of salacious allegations against him on the intelligence agencies and equated their behavior to Nazi Germany’s. CIA Director John Brennan, in a weekend interview, called Trump’s remarks “repugnant.”

Trump’s arguments have not swayed Americans, according to the CNN/ORC poll. Almost 2 in 3 respondents said they believed the Russians interfered in the election and called those actions a “crisis” or a “major problem.” More than half polled said they disapproved of how Trump had handled the matter; only 35% backed him.

A more profitable transition path for the president-elect would have been to emphasize the issues that propelled his candidacy. He has received praise for boosting U.S. jobs, even if critics say some of his claims are exaggerated. Jobs, Americans have indicated, is what they want him to focus on.

Six in 10 Americans — and almost 3 in 10 Democrats — in the Post/ABC poll said they expected Trump would be good or excellent at managing the economy. About the same number said they believed he could be good or excellent when it comes to creating jobs. And 56% believed he could properly command the war on terrorism.

Those views derive from the vision that Trump put forward in the campaign: that he was a leader tough enough to stand up for the nation. The Russia matter, and Trump’s other Twitter-driven controversies, present an image of Trump fighting with his nation, not for it. The success of his presidency may well rest on whether he plays to his strengths, or indulges his weaknesses.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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