AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
President-elect Donald Trump will descend on Washington next month, buoyed by his upset victory and Republican control of Congress to implement his agenda.
But he’s facing a major obstacle: Trump will enter the White House as the least-popular incoming president in the modern era of public-opinion polling.
The down-in-the-dumps figures raise hard questions about whether he’ll have the political capital needed to push through his more controversial nominees and his aggressive legislative goals of repealing Obamacare, passing a major infrastructure spending plan and reforming immigration and tax policies.
On Election Day, just 38 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Trump, compared to 60 percent who viewed him unfavorably — unheard of for a presidential-election victor. (Still, Trump won about 15 percent of the vote among those who had an unfavorable opinion of him.)
While Trump has received a boost in public opinion after his victory, he still badly lags past presidents-elect when it comes to personal favorability. Currently, his average favorable rating stands at 43 percent, according to HuffPost Pollster, while a 49-percent plurality views him unfavorably. More respondents viewed Trump unfavorably than favorably in the most recent batch of public polls from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Suffolk University/USA Today, Fox News,CBS News and POLITICO/Morning Consult, all conducted in early- or mid-December.
Compare that with President Barack Obama, who entered 2009 with a 68-percent favorable rating – and only a 21-percent unfavorable rating.
Trump’s persistent and deep unpopularity – combined with the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million ballots – means he lacks the potent argument that the will of the people are behind his agenda.
“He’s clearly not doing as well as other presidents-elect,” said GOP pollster David Winston, a long-time adviser to Republican leaders in both the House and Senate. “We’ve never had a president-elect that had more unfavorables than favorables. He’s started in a pretty big hole in terms of favorables.”
And even though Democrats are in the minority in both chambers of Congress — Republicans will control 241 of 435 House seats and 52 out of 100 Senate seats — the party sees an opening in Trump’s poor poll standing.
“The lack of support for the president-elect means that Democrats can oppose him when they believe they should,” said Jesse Ferguson, the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee independent-expenditure head who worked as a spokesman for Clinton’s campaign this year. “They can be confident that there’s no pressure for them to support him out of fear of his political prowess and political power, because his coattails look a little more like a T-SHIRT.”
Typically, incoming presidents face little resistance to their executive-branch nominees.
Both Obama and George W. Bush were no exception. They entered with their respective parties in control of both houses of Congress, and in the first years of their presidencies — 2009 and 2001, respectively — a total of 43 executive-branch nominees came before the Senate for roll-call votes, not including nominees approved by voice vote or judicial candidates.
On average, the nominees received 83 votes, while an average of 12 senators from the opposition party voted against the president’s nominee, meaning the appointees generally got an easy ride when it came to vote time.
Moreover, presidents almost always united their own parties. For the 20 Bush nominees on whom the Senate voted in 2001, not a single “no” vote was cast by a Republican senator.
Obama faced scattered opposition by his own party in 2009, but the largest number of Democratic senators to oppose a nominee was five — Cass Sunstein for a regulatory post at the Office of Management and Budget, and Gary Gensler to chair the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — not including Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who voted against both men as well.
The outlook for Trump’s nominees is generally positive, but some have already caused agitation not only among Democrats but also among his fellow Republicans. The loudest intra-party dissent has come in reaction to Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has extensive ties with Russia. That has raised the ire of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two notable Russia hawks.
But on the whole, Trump should wield some power over the Senate. Of the 52 incoming Republicans in the chamber, only three hail from states that voted against Trump this fall: Susan Collins (Maine), Cory Gardner (Colorado) and Dean Heller (Nevada). And of those, only Heller is up for reelection this year.
By contrast, 11 Senate Democrats represent states that Trump carried in November. And 10 of them are up for reelection.
The House is similarly tilted toward Trump, which could help with his legislative agenda, despite his lack of fulsome support among Americans nationwide. While final calculations are still spending, Trump appears to have won a majority of House districts, despite trailing Clinton by more than 2 percentage points nationally.
That’s because Democrats are more tightly clustered in the nation’s cities, creating some overwhelmingly Democratic districts in which Trump won fewer than 10 percent of the vote. And, more broadly, Republicans drew more of the most-recent congressional maps than Democrats, allowing the GOP to tilt the playing field in its favor for the remainder of the decade.
Many of the House Republicans hail from districts Trump carried by wide margins, though there are a number of Republicans in Clinton districts, especially along the coasts.
Winston, the Republican pollster, said those members won’t necessarily be tracking Trump’s national poll ratings.
“The one number that every member looks at is what is the president’s job-approval rating in my district,” Winston said.
While both chambers of Congress appear daunting for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections – given the cycle’s Senate map and House districts that favor the GOP every two years – Ferguson said voters who backed Trump in this year’s election can flip if they don’t approve of his job performance two years from now.
“It’s not like the districts that Democrats won [in the 2006 midterm elections] to take the House or the Senate were bright blue or even lightly purple,” said Ferguson. “They were districts in North Carolina and districts in Iowa and districts in Alabama. The assumption that just because redistricting has moved the goalposts that you still can’t score … is a false assumption.”
That raises the stakes for Trump and the congressional GOP’s first months next year, Winston said. Voters sent a clear message on Election Day: They are eager for action, and they aren’t afraid to rock the boat again in the next election.
Pointing to modest improvements in Trump’s poll numbers since the election, Winston said, “The obvious challenge to the incoming White House is going to be they’ve got to keep that momentum going.”
“[Voters] want to see things get done,” he added. “Members understand that. They understand that the ball’s now in their court, and they’re going to have to put points on the board. The electorate is looking for things to happen pretty quickly here.”