As President Obama passes the torch to President-elect Trump, Americans are witnessing all sorts of firsts, including the largest-ever gap in popularity from one leader to his successor.Obama is exiting the stage on a high note
, with an approval rating at 60% or higher in several new surveys. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is the least popular new president since the dawn of modern polling, with the latest CBS News poll
giving an approval rating of just 37% and a favorability rating of just 32%. A Fox News poll
released last night showed similar results.For his part, Trump seems to believe there's a giant media/polling conspiracy underway -- he insisted this week that the polls are "rigged
" -- and his team is under the impression that the data doesn't matter
Mr. Trump's advisers said privately that his unexpected rise to power showed that such traditional barometers did not matter as much anymore. If polls were to be believed, he would not have been president, they said.
It's not quite that simple. Polls were right when they showed Trump dominating in the Republican presidential primaries, and they were right again when they showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by millions.For that matter, polling on approval and favorability ratings is vastly easier than putting together polling screens on who's likely to cast a ballot. When every independent poll shows a politician is unpopular, it means he really is unpopular. Most members of Congress, who'll be asked to endorse Trump's widely disliked agenda, will be on the ballot next year, and it's safe to assume they'll be far less cavalier about Americans' attitudes.But just as notable is the fact that Trump World's attitudes towards polls may carry alarming consequences.Vox's Dylan Matthews had a good piece
on this the other day:
[O]ne of the most important checks on the president, on any politician, is public opinion. While it may not always feel true, political scientists broadly agree that presidents have historically been quite responsive to public opinion.... Public opinion is a valuable constraint on the president's freedom of action. [...][I]f Trump does dismiss these numbers, that means he's ignoring one of the only things that can hold him back. Instead of taking polls as indicators -- imperfect indicators, but still -- that something is going wrong and he might want to pivot for his own good, he might not consider them at all.
It's a recipe for trouble: Americans will soon be led by a president who's convinced he enjoys broad public support, though the backing exists largely in his imagination. A leader who's deluded about his own popularity will feel unrestrained while pursuing goals much, and perhaps most, of the country oppose.Buckle up.