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Trump Faces A More Skeptical Public Than Any Incoming President Since 1989

Protesters yell during a July 18 rally in Cleveland against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Patrick Semansky
Protesters yell during a July 18 rally in Cleveland against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Everyone called this a "change election," and with the fiercely anti-establishment Donald Trump, Americans certainly got change. But they are still uncertain about what they think of their new Change President.

Forty-one percent of Americans say they approve of how well he has explained his "policies and plans for the future to the American people," according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

That's lower than any incoming president since at least George H.W. Bush, in 1989. Approval for Trump's Cabinet choices is likewise lower than it was for these previous presidents.

Those low ratings are largely because of Democrats; 79 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners approve of how he has explained his policies, on par with GOP feelings toward George W. Bush in 2001 and slightly ahead of George H.W. Bush in 1989. However, no president in Pew's data has received such a low approval rating from the opposing party. Only 15 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners approve of Trump.

Even after a prolonged recount and Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush received 29 percent approval from Democrats in 2001.

It's perhaps not a surprising result for candidate with stunningly high unfavorable ratings in polls leading up to the election. Trump often performed worse on this measure than Hillary Clinton, who also was highly disliked and whom Trump defeated in the Electoral College on Election Day.

But it highlights the potential obstacles he will face as president, with more than half of the country indicating it doesn't exactly have the highest confidence in him. (It's not for nothing that Time declared him the "President of the Divided States of America" this week — though Republicans do control both the House and Senate as well as many governorships and state legislatures throughout the country.)

Democrats warm up ... somewhat

Trump did get some cold comfort from across the aisle in this survey: Despite their deep dislike of Trump, Democrats seem to be less fearful of his presidency than they once were.

It isn't that Democrats are exactly feeling warm toward Trump — only 11 percent see him being a "great" or "good" president. However, Pew found that 64 percent think he will be "poor" or "terrible," down 25 points from two months ago, just before the election.

Republicans likewise have warmed to Trump since the election. Just before, barely half of Republicans and Republican-leaners — so, the people on his party's side — said he would be "great or good." Today, it's 67 percent. Also interesting are the "poor or terrible" data among Republicans. Those numbers have declined steadily from March to December, a picture of a party slowly coming around to its eventual nominee, even amid numerous scandals and gaffes.

It's not terribly surprising to find that partisan feelings have relaxed since the election. After all, negative ads and the constant sniping from two polarizing candidates have disappeared. To the extent that attacks — both on and by Trump — turned some voters off, that could explain at least some of the calming.

There's a split on expectations — 38 percent of Americans think Trump will be "poor" or "terrible," and 36 percent say "good" or "great."

There are some things that Americans agree on a bit more. For example, given a list of words they might use to describe the president, most Americans — 68 percent — said he was "hard to like." In addition, 65 percent called him "reckless" and 62 percent said he has "poor judgment."

On the positive side, 60 percent also described him as "patriotic," and just over half (52 percent) said he was a "strong leader." (And on all of these assessments, there are still wide gaps between the way Democrats and Republicans described Trump.)

Economic forecasts vary dramatically by party

While Democrats may be feeling less fearful about the future, they're certainly not suddenly feeling sunshiny and optimistic. Far from it; as of June, 35 percent of Democrats thought economic conditions a year from now would be better. Today, it's only 15 percent.

Meanwhile, Republicans — to an eye-popping degree — believe the economy will improve in a year. Their belief in this jumped from 29 percent in June to 75 percent today.

The economy is relatively healthy right now — low unemployment and solid GDP growth, with a recent, surprisingly strong uptick in household income — and it is certainly far healthier than it was when President Obama took office.

Trump will inherit that strength. The question is what he does with it. He has claimed that he will slash regulations and business taxes to boost growth. Already, stock indexes seem to have shrugged off election-night jitters and have risen to record highs in recent days. And Trump has taken credit for saving and creating jobs at individual companies (though it's not clear how much credit he should claim in all these cases; in one, the company appeared ready to invest in the U.S. anyway).

Then again, his tax plan as it stands could raise the deficit and increase inequality. In addition, one widely cited report found that Trump's proposed policies, if all enacted, would send the U.S. into a recession.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.