Trump's Honeymoon Over Before It Starts

Trump's Honeymoon Over Before It Starts
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Forget about the honeymoon.

Donald Trump will move into the White House bolstered by less public support and goodwill than his recent predecessors enjoyed, and his weaker standing will impact governing choices he faces, according to experts.

Nothing about the rollercoaster transition week he’s experiencing at the moment is likely to persuade the 54 percent of the electorate that shunned him in November to soften their resistance, according to observers.

Why is that important? Because the president-elect has an ambitious but vaguely detailed agenda he wants to enact before the end of the year. He has no domestic governing experience, and no international training as a representative of more than 300 million people or as a commander of the U.S. military.

Trump will need to build Americans’ support in an environment in which progressives are litigating the election results with noisy protests, opposition research, fundraising, and trial balloons from potential presidential candidates four years from now.

"More than any other factor, Trump's current ratings reflect the brutal nature of this past year's campaign,” GOP pollster Neil Newhouse explained in an email.

A Quinnipiac University survey this week found that 51 percent of the public disapproves of Trump’s transition performance. And 52 percent predicted the New York businessman would be a “not so good” or “bad” president.

Gallup reported a month ago that respondents were evenly split (48 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved) when asked how they thought Trump was handling his preparations to govern. That split contrasted with the three presidents before the incoming 45th commander in chief. Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each climbed above 65 percent in job approval during their transitions into the White House (Obama, the first African-American president, soared to 75 percent). 

Trump may argue he has a mandate to govern, having won the Electoral College, but what he actually has is a strong and enthusiastic political base. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, and progressives are not letting Trump forget it.

“Trump and Hillary were the two most unpopular party nominees in the history of polling,” Newhouse continued. “Neither candidate could have reasonably expected a political honeymoon after having survived this past election cycle.”

The pollster added that Trump’s base, which is dominated by non-college-educated, white and Midwestern and Rust Belt backers, “love him and support what he's doing. That's unlikely to change any time in the near future.” 

But it is unlikely to be enough when the inevitable happens: Trump will have to make decisions in cases where there will be losers, as well as winners. That concern on Capitol Hill this week put a sharp kink in conservatives’ vow to “repeal” the Affordable Care Act immediately, before devising a replacement program over the next few years. 

Recognizing the political risk posed by that strategy, the president-elect instructed GOP majorities in the House and Senate this week to purge Obamacare – a campaign pledge – but also replace it simultaneously with legislation that is more affordable and qualitatively better, but also maintains some popular ACA benefits, leans on the private sector, gets rid of mandates, allows patients to keep their favorite doctors, doesn’t force lawmakers to raise taxes to finance anything, and won’t mess with Medicare. Such a measure will need some Democratic votes.

It’s a tall order.

Trump, even before he takes the oath of office, has jawboned corporations to preserve U.S. jobs and manufacturing plants operating in the United States. He also waded knee-deep into some persistent controversies. Trump rejected government ethics watchdogs’ advice about minimizing his potential business conflicts while he’s president. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to be his unpaid White House senior adviser. His two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, will run the Trump Organization, and Trump said he would not sign any new business deals, but would not divest his holdings or put his assets in a blind trust, as recommended by government ethics experts.

The public feuds, tweets and complaints ginned up by the president-elect have continued, and are expected to persist after he’s sworn in.

After months of foot-dragging, he conceded Wednesday that Russia was responsible for illegally hacking and stealing material from the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton’s campaign chief, John Podesta. Trump had been reluctant to offer such concessions for fear that doing so might fan the public’s suspicions that he is not the legitimate president-to-be. But Trump continued to question the competence of the country’s top intelligence experts, and he berated what he described as biased, irresponsible media outlets. Trump also continued his rhetorical put-downs of reporters, treating journalists as biased, irresponsible and theatrical distractions and foils.

Among his base, those actions are heartily embraced. Trump’s supporters don’t trust the mainstream media, congressional Republicans, federal bureaucrats, or ethics watchdogs who attempted to advise the self-described billionaire about financial conflicts.

Trump’s transition team rejects the notion that the vulnerabilities the president-elect faced after narrowly winning the Electoral College but not the popular vote, and divisions he exacerbated since November, will weaken his early tenure as president.

“I think that the power of his movement, the power of – if you want to call it a mandate, you can – I think lawmakers around this country, from the lowest level to the highest level, understood that the American people voted for change, and he’s the instrument of that change,” Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary and communications director, told RealClearPolitics.

Spicer said the corporate executives who seek to collaborate with the new administration, and the expertise of the appointees Trump named to his Cabinet and White House staff, are evidence of the heft Trump will wield as president.

“Despite the claims from Trump Tower,” interjected one presidency scholar, “the president-elect did not receive a mandate.”

George Edwards, political science professor at Texas A&M University and editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly, said support from 46 percent of those who cast ballots was not a landslide, or a mandate. And polls showed that many Americans voted against a candidate rather than for a nominee.

In addition, partisan divisions in the nation and on Capitol Hill are serious obstacles. “In the absence of large majorities in both houses of Congress,” Edwards added, “enacting major changes in public policy usually requires expanding public support beyond those who identify with the president’s party.” 

Not only are prominent Trump policy pledges controversial, they remain ill defined, making it more challenging for the incoming president to sand down partisan polarization to sculpt centrist compromises that could satisfy majorities of voters – and pass through Congress. It is a leadership skill Trump has to demonstrate in a governing environment considered alien to most corporate executives. And plenty of more practiced predecessors failed in their attempts to enact “change.”

Honeymoon periods measured in mere months during recent presidencies shriveled in comparison to the luxurious metrics chronicled from the era of President Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, according to Gallup. In the glory days, honeymoons averaged 26 months. In the current political climate, presidents need job approval ratings over 55 percent and some luck to stretch their public support at least nine months, Gallup’s data shows.

Trump, said Edwards, “begins from a weak position and faces a highly polarized public. Moreover, he has little chance of changing many minds, not because he lacks persuasive skill but because of the nature of public opinion. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all failed to do so. Trump will be no exception.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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