President Donald Trump is and has been historically unpopular in the White House — and he’s likely to stay that way.
Economist Paul Krugman noted in a New York Times op-ed on Monday that Trump’s low approval rating of 37 percent according to the Pew Research Center is matched only by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency:
Eventually, as we know, Reagan’s popularity recovered; he was re-elected, and he’s gone down as a hero in Republican politics, even if many of his policy positions would now be wildly out of line with the extremist GOP.
Trump can’t expect to be so lucky. As Krugman explained, Reagan in 1983 was unpopular because the economy was so bad — unemployment was at 10 percent. Trump is popular despite the fact that unemployment is comparably low — around 4 percent.
Although many voters blamed Reagan for this economic distress, the truth was that it had little to do with his policies; it was, instead, the consequence of the Federal Reserve’s attempts to bring down inflation, which had driven interest rates as high as 19 percent.
By mid-1982, however, the Fed had reversed course, sharply reducing rates. And these rate cuts eventually produced a huge housing boom, which in turn drove a rapid economic recovery.
Like the earlier slump, this boom had little to do with Reagan’s policies, but voters gave him credit anyway. Unemployment was still fairly high — more than 7 percent — in November 1984, but what matters for elections is whether things are getting better or worse, not how good they are in absolute terms. And in 1983-84, unemployment fell fast, so Reagan won big.
But Trump can’t hope for a quick unemployment turnaround, because it’s already quite low. There are other problems in the economy, of course — low wages, labor’s weakened power, health insecurity, and regional decline. Maybe if Trump actually did something to address these problems, he really could significantly boost his popularity.
And yet, he’s not even trying. His major economic policy, the GOP tax bill, provided a momentary sugar high at best while ballooning budget deficit projections. Congressional Republicans barely mentioned it during the 2018 campaign, knowing it was unpopular. Trump promised to revitalize coal country — but he’s failing, and he’ll continue to fail. Meanwhile, his government shutdown and trade wars are hurting the economy and could even push us into recession.
“Most of Reagan’s political success reflected not fundamental economic achievement but good luck with the timing of the business cycle,” wrote Krugman. “And Trump almost certainly won’t experience comparable luck.”
But this raises the question: What will Trump and the Republicans do in 2020 when, as seems likely, they realize that he’s barreling toward defeat?
“I don’t know the answer to that question, and if you aren’t scared about how a cornered Trump might lash out, you haven’t been paying attention,” wrote Krugman.
Trump has proven that he’ll try almost anything if he’s desperate enough. And we haven’t yet seen him at his most desperate. No one knows what it will look like if Republicans turn against him or Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivers devastating evidence of wrongdoing. President Richard Nixon resigned when his party allies told him it was over — can anyone imagine Trump going quietly into the night?