Trump should be alarmed instead. His approval ratings have risen far less than other leaders’ ratings during the coronavirus crisis, and Americans don’t seem to fully grasp the severity of the recession that’s coming as businesses shut down and millions lose their jobs. As a tsunami of hardship swamps the nation, Trump may find that his boasting and deflections backfire as people become more and more desperate for relief.
For now, Trump’s approval rating has risen from 43% at the beginning of March—before the coronavirus had shut down much of the U.S. economy – to 45% at the end of the month, according to the Fivethirtyeight composite of polls. Gallup puts Trump’s rating at 49%. By either measure, his approval ratings are close to the highest of his presidency, while his disapproval ratings are close to the lowest levels.
The gains are very small, however, compared with changes in approval ratings for other prominent leaders. Approval ratings for the UK’s Boris Johnson’s rose 15 points in two weeks, according to Morning Consult. Ratings are up 9 points for Germany’s Angela Merkel and 7 points for France’s Emmanuel Macron. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is up 11 points and Australia’s Scott Morrison is up 13 points.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s approval rating has soared from 50% to 71%, as Cuomo conducts televised daily briefings on the crisis in New York, similar to Trump’s daily White House briefings. People normally “rally around the flag” and support their leader during a crisis, yet Trump seems to be badly underperforming, compared with other leaders.
That small Trump bump could vanish and become an erosion of support if mainstream economic forecasts come true in coming months. Oxford Economics expects more than 20 million people to lose their jobs by the end of April, with the unemployment rate spiking from 3.5% to 12%. That would be unprecedented carnage. During the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the ranks of the unemployed swelled by 8.6 million or less than half the outlook for the next month alone. The unemployment rate back then peaked at just 10%.
Not feeling it yet?
Americans don’t grasp how bad this is going to get. Consumer confidence fell in the latest Conference Board survey—but only to the levels of early 2016. It’s still way higher than the depths confidence hit during the low point of the Great Recession in 2009. People obviously know something serious is going on when stores and restaurants close indefinitely. But many haven’t yet felt the recession in their paychecks, in lost health insurance or in the distress of family members.
The huge $2.2 trillion stimulus bill Congress just passed will ease the pain for some. Extreme monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve will also help contain some of the damage. But neither of these measures will do the one thing most likely to end the recession: Contain the virus.
That’s up to Trump, to some extent. Aggressive, competent efforts to massively increase testing and keep people home—regardless of the short-term economic costs—could shorten the duration of the misery. But Trump has performed poorly up till now. He dismissed the threat of the virus for nearly two months, wasting valuable time that gave the virus a foothold in many large cities. He has pushed the idea of reopening the economy prematurely, which could cause a double-dip recession if the virus resurges. Trump also says he’s not aware that a shortage of testing is a problem, even though it’s all over the news and governors have been complaining about shortages to the White House directly.
Trump may be appealing to some voters who flip on his briefings seeking reassurance at a troubling time. But Trump will lose what credibility he has left if he tries to convince Americans everything is fine when they’re short on rent and wondering who can help. That may already be happening. Even as Trump’s approval inches up, Joe Biden, his likely Democratic challenger in the presidential race, seems to have an edge. Biden leads Trump by an average of 6.5 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics aggregate of polls, suggesting voters would actually prefer to change horses in the midst of a crisis. Maybe they like Trump as a TV character but want somebody else for a leader.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.