National crises are times of heightened stress, anxiety, grief and sorrow. Shared suffering, however, often brings people together. In many past American crises, including wars, terrorist attacks and recessions, citizens have rallied around their leader and offered widespread support. President Donald Trump has experienced a slight boost in his public approval rating since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, but his widely criticized response to the pandemic and today’s polarized political environment have both limited that uptick.
According to Five Thirty Eight, President Trump’s job approval rating jumped four percent from Jan. 10 to the last week of March, ending at 45.8%. That approval rating is the highest it has been since the week after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Gallup shows a similar trend, with Trump’s approval rating up 5% over the same time period, with 60% of Americans approving of Trump’s handling of this crisis. The approval rating boost came largely from independents and some Democrats, as almost all Republicans already gave their approval.
Historically, the public has reacted in a similar manner to crises, backing presidential figures during times of social strain. JFK’s approval rating went from 61% to 74% in one month as a result of cuban missile crisis, President Carter’s rating went from 31% to 58% in three months after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran and almost 40% more Americans approved of the job President Bush was doing after 9/11. President Trump has not seen anything resembling those skyrocketing rates, largely because political polarization makes presidential approval rates highly partisan and consistent over time. Even President Obama’s largest bump was capped at 7%.
Polarization cannot fully explain the lack of a more robust surge in approval. Governors across the country, who have been leaders in the virus response effort, have convinced over 70% of voters in their states that they are doing a good job handling the crisis, more than Trump’s 60%. Heads of state in other countries are also faring better – approval ratings for Italy’s prime minister and France’s president swelled 25% and 15% respectively. Some of this disparity can be attributed to the delay in a federal response to the virus, Trump’s lack of coordination in nationally mobilizing medical supplies, and recent revelations that Trump should have taken the virus seriously much earlier.
Another factor contributing to Trump’s considerably low approval ratings is the economy. While some presidents, like Obama, have seen public approval increases as a result of their handling of recessions, most economic downturns are not good for incumbent presidents. The Trump campaign has embraced a thriving economy as their main pitch for reelection. Consequently, the nosediving stock market and massive unemployment numbers in recent weeks harm Trump’s message.
Overall, the takeaway is mixed for President Trump. After trailing considerably in recent weeks, he has caught up to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in several recent national polls. But the short-term economic future appears bleak, and criticism of Trump’s initial response to the virus outbreak is mounting. Clearly, Trump has not benefited as much from being in charge during a crisis as many other world leaders have in the past and continue to today.
Nonetheless, his numbers are up. While he can’t change how he responded to the virus in its earliest days, he seems to be scrambling to reclaim authority and rally more people behind him. This week, he denounced state powers, has ensured his name will be on checks to American families and has sought to blame the WTO. Only time will tell if those strategies work, or if they backfire. If history is any indication, fumbling a crisis like this will result in any approval gains being quickly and completely erased.