Unless there’s some kind of dramatic shift in the next two months, Donald Trump will take office as the most disliked, least trusted president in modern history. How will that affect the way he conducts himself in office? What sort of effort will he make to unite the country? And is his image among the public really that bad?
Let’s start with some recent poll results:
-Trump’s favorability has ticked up since the election, but is still significantly below other presidents. The Politico/Morning consult poll shows him at 46 percent, while Gallup shows him at 42 percent. At this time in previous transitions, the president-elect’s favorability was significantly higher: Bill Clinton was at 58 percent in 1992, George W. Bush was at 59 percent in 2000, and Barack Obama was at 68 percent in 2008. The idea that a new president could take office with a majority of Americans disliking him was unheard of before now.
-A new Pew Research Center poll shows 53 percent of Americans saying Trump’s election makes them “uneasy.” Pew also asked respondents to give the candidates a letter grade for how they conducted themselves during the campaign. Forty-three percent gave Hillary Clinton an “A” or a “B,” consistent with what other losing candidates have gotten since they started asking the question in 1988. Only 30 percent gave Trump an “A” or a “B,” the worst ever. The previous low mark for a winner was George H.W. Bush’s 49 percent in 1988. In 2008, 75 percent gave high marks to Obama.
-In a separate Gallup poll, by 49-44 percent, more Americans say Trump will divide the country than unite it. This too is much worse than what Americans predicted for previous presidents.
And then there’s what may be the most extraordinary fact about the current situation: Not only will Trump be only the fourth president in American history to take office having lost the popular vote (what in every other democracy they refer to as “the vote”), but Hillary Clinton’s lead is large and growing.
As of the most recent count, Clinton has received 1.7 million more votes Trump. In fact, she received more votes than any presidential candidate in history not named Barack Obama. And it’s not over yet.
On Friday, the California Secretary of State’s office reported that the state still has 2.8 million ballots left to count, mostly because mail-in ballots take time to arrive and there are significant numbers of provisional ballots to examine as well. Clinton won California by an almost 2-1 margin, and if the remaining ballots reflect the same split, her final popular vote lead over Trump could reach 2.5 million. That’s five times as large as the margin by which Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the popular vote in 2000.
Legally speaking, that fact is irrelevant. But the fact that a couple million more Americans chose Clinton to be their president is highly relevant to Trump’s legitimacy.
In normal circumstances, a minority president might take it as a strong suggestion to tread carefully — not just to “reach out” to the other party by appointing one or two of its members to his cabinet or by inviting its congressional leadership over for dinner, but to govern with an awareness that most Americans still need to be convinced that his presidency will be something other than a disaster. That means moving carefully, making efforts to assure the people who voted against you that they won’t be victimized by your presidency, and not undertaking sweeping, disruptive changes that the public isn’t behind.
That’s not something any president is going to be inclined to do, since they all would like to believe that a win by any margin, even a negative one, constitutes a “mandate” for them to follow up on everything they proposed doing during the campaign, whether those individual proposals were popular or not. And you’d have to work hard to find someone less inclined to trim his sails than Donald Trump.
That’s even before he gets to dealing with a Republican Congress absolutely bursting with anticipation of its glorious opportunity to wipe away the last eight years and finally usher in the conservative utopia of its dreams. High on the list of priorities are slashing taxes for the wealthy and privatizing Medicare, which were most certainly not what the public thought it was getting when it casts its ballots two weeks ago.
So while it’s possible that Donald Trump will become a completely different person once he takes office and begin acting and speaking in a prudent, responsible, thoughtful, and inclusive manner that reassures all Americans that he has their interests at heart, that’s not very likely. In fact, it would be the most shocking thing we’ve seen in years, even after this most shocking campaign.