Donald Trump’s 6-month approval rating isn’t that much lower than Bill Clinton’s

Jul 20th, 2017 | By Randall White | Category: In Brief

American people who probably didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but might have voted for Bill Clinton back in the day..

[UPDATED JULY 21]. “This may be the hottest day we’ve had this summer,” someone said in the parking lot. I don’t know myself. In any case that’s just up here — north of the lakes.

Contemplating the more southerly climate of la démocratie en Amérique, I’m still thinking about two world-wide web reports from this past Monday : Steve Benen’s “Trump sees his historically awful public standing as ‘not bad’” from the Rachel Maddow site ; and Harry Enten’s “Six Months In, Trump Is Historically Unpopular” from  Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com.

Both reports compare presidential approval ratings after six months in office since the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.

Steve Benen’s work is based on “Washington Post/ABC News and Gallup Data.” Harry Enten uses “the FiveThirtyEight aggregate” (and if you are seriously wondering what this means try “How We’re Tracking Donald Trump’s Approval Ratings” by Nate Silver).

Because they use somewhat different configurations of polls, the two reports rank the “six-month-in popularity” of the 13 presidents since FDR somewhat differently. But they agree on the  key real-world results  :

* the four most popular presidents after six months in office are “Truman, Kennedy, Johnson,  Eisenhower” (Benen) or (in a slightly different order) “Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower” (Enten) ;

* the three least popular presidents at the same juncture are “Clinton, Ford, Trump” (Benen) or (in the same order) “Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, Donald Trump” (Enten).

Two further propositions strike me as I ponder these reports at slightly greater length …

UPDATE JULY 21 : See also Jeffrey M. Jones at the Gallup organization on “Trump Sets New Low for Second-Quarter Job Approval.” (Which also shows President Trump not all that far away from President Clinton!)

1. Who really knows why the golden age of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s vanished (and was it really all that golden anyway) ?

The first proposition is just about time. The most popular presidents after six months in office are all from quite long ago now (1945, 1953, 1961, 1964 in the case of the top four). And the least popular presidents are from more recent times. (Gerald Ford is a modest exception. But even he is from the mid 1970s, rather than the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.)

So … democracy in America may have reached some new bottom in six-month-in approval ratings with President Trump (in both the Benen and Enten reports). But he also just reflects a downward trend in motion for some time. The “average year” for the six most popular presidents after six months (based on Enten’s data, since he posts raw numbers not bar charts) is 1963. The average year for the seven least popular presidents is 1993.

On one deeper reading of all this, the American people seem more critical and skeptical today. Perhaps because times for some are that much worse. Perhaps because many are less naive and gullible. Perhaps because political debate has become so partisan and polarized. For whatever exact reasons, it is apparently harder to be a popular president than it used to be.

(And then there are a few misleading wrinkles on timing as well. On Enten’s raw numbers again, the high approval ratings for both Truman and Johnson come from just after the deaths of FDR and JFK, while Ford’s low ratings come in the wake of Watergate and the Nixon resignation.)

2. Donald Trump as the Republicans’ revenge for “New Democrat” Bill Clinton

l to r : Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kylie Bax, Donald Trump, President Bill Clinton, and Melania Knauss (who would later marry Trump), at the US Open in Flushing, New York, September 8, 2000.

The second proposition that struck me as I stared at the Benen and Enten charts and tables may be more provocative.

It is true enough that in both analyses President Donald Trump Sr winds up on the bottom.

(In the Enten table he actually has a somewhat higher approval rating than “Gerald Ford.” But Trump’s “disapproval rating” [as opposed to indifference or “don’t know”] is 14 points higher than Ford’s. And this means Trump’s “net approval” — ie approval rating minus disapproval rating — is 10 points lower, and clearly the lowest on the list. He is also lowest in both approval and disapproval ratings from the start on Steve Benen’s bar chart.)

At the same time, Donald Trump’s 2017 approval ratings for his first six months in office, in both the Enten table and Benen bar chart, are not all that much lower than Bill Clinton’s in 1993. (Trump is at 39% approval for Enten and, say, about 36% on a hasty reading of Benen’s bar chart, while Clinton’s comparable numbers are 46% and about 44%.)

“Newlyweds Donald Trump Sr. and Melania Trump with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at their reception held at The Mar-a-Lago Club in January 22, 2005 in Palm Beach, Florida. Maring Photography / Contour by Getty Images.”

Moreover, at least for one dumb guy in Canada (“We the North”!), in trying to understand the continuing US Republican attachment to the recurrent bizarre behaviour of President Trump it helps a little to see him as a Republican version of the Democrat Bill Clinton, back in the 1990s when men were still men.

In finally choosing Donald Trump and continuing to support him faithfully (so far at any rate, some would stress), Republicans in the USA today are just taking revenge on the Democrats for Bill Clinton (to say nothing of his “enabling” wife).

In fact this is probably the best spin possible on the six-months-in approval ratings for Trump supporters. Despite his shaky start, William Jefferson Clinton (the white-trash scholarship boy from Arkansas who, some certainly said at the time, was just not suitable as President of the United States) finally left office with a 66% approval rating (despite being impeached by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives!).

I don’t myself mean to suggest that I think President Trump has any kind of future quite like Bill Clinton’s. President Clinton’s saving grace was that, whatever else, he was a serious policy wonk and gifted democratic political orator, with degrees from Georgetown University, Yale Law School, and Oxford University in England, and authentic roots in this world of ordinary people.

Certainly for me Donald Trump has absolutely nothing remotely comparable. And he has already done appalling things well beyond the sins of Bill Clinton (or those of Mr. Clinton’s equally gifted and ambitious wife, who alas never quite mastered his skills in retail politics).

At the same time again, as one dumb guy way up north in Canada (not paying all that much attention), I had some trouble understanding just who William Jefferson Clinton was during his first five or six years as US president, right next door.

And then finally, in 1998, along came John Travolta as President Wild Bill in the Mike Nichols/Elaine May movie Primary Colors (based on the book Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, originally by Anonymous, who later turned out to be Joe Klein).

Suddenly I could see the plain truth that Bill Clinton was (and probably still is in spirit) a pretty wild and crazy guy, from the conservative deep south, and indebted in some serious degree to a brainy upper-middle-class wife from the old Chicago suburbs, who usually managed to keep his eyes on the prize.

President Trump, it would seem clear enough by this point, is another wild and crazy guy (this time from liberal New York City up north) — and like Bill Clinton in at least that respect.

And I somehow find all this some small comfort, as I do my best to avoid clips about Donald Trump on US (and Canadian!) TV. Mr. Trump is not at all some completely new and unknown force in American politics. He is just an extreme exaggeration of various longstanding dysfunctional trends — to a point where his ultimate fate remains a deep mystery for the moment, but is probably bound to be somehow quite rigorously wild and crazy in its own right.

Laughing to keep from crying, in the old tradition, could take democracy in America through it, more or less unscathed?

(The music of Jerry Lee Lewis from rural Louisiana somehow seems to fit President Trump the wrestling fan — “an American singer-songwriter, musician, and pianist, often known by his nickname, The Killer. He has been described as ‘rock & roll’s first great wild man.’” And see this classic 1964 live performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On” on YouTube — an apt enough description of the current 2017 scene in Washington, DC, as viewed on US TV.)

Now, if only someone could figure out what it all means practically — for the stock market, say? For the moment this still seems impossible to me. (Except it does appear almost certain that the mysterious and certainly beautiful Melania Trump will not be running for president herself when her husband retires — whenever that may be.)

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