Every time there’s a change of control in Washington, the party taking power wants to believe it has an emphatic mandate from the American people to do everything on its agenda. After all, we just won, didn’t we? Of course the public is behind us!
Sometimes it’s true, and when it comes to presidents, there’s always a “honeymoon” period in which even many people who didn’t vote for the incoming president give him the benefit of the doubt and express optimism about his ability to succeed. Except not this year. Not only are Donald Trump’s approval ratings still in the low forties (a little better than during the campaign, but not by much), the approaching bloom of change doesn’t seem to smell too sweet to most Americans. Here’s a new poll from Gallup:
As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, less than half of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (46%), to use military force wisely (47%) or to prevent major scandals in his administration (44%). At least seven in 10 Americans were confident in Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in these areas before they took office.
Americans express somewhat more confidence in Trump to work effectively with Congress (60%), to handle the economy effectively (59%), to defend U.S. interests abroad as president (55%), and to manage the executive branch effectively (53%). But even in these areas, Americans are far less confident in Trump than they were in his predecessors, when comparisons are available.
On these measures, Trump scores an average of 27 points worse than Obama did in 2009 and 25 points worse than Bush did in 2001. So it isn’t just a matter of polarization, because the country was extremely polarized under both of those presidents.
Nevertheless, Republicans believe they have a mandate for wholesale, dramatic change. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind that despite what everyone seems to think, 2016 was not really a “change” election, and that’s not just because the outgoing president is extremely popular and his chosen successor got almost 3 million more votes than the person who’ll be in the Oval Office.
If 2016 was really a “change” election, you would have seen incumbents at all levels defeated as voters opted for something new. Or if it were a “change” election specifically aimed at ousting Democrats and bringing about a new era of Republican rule, you would have seen many Democrats defeated. But neither of those things happened. In the House, only one incumbent Democrat was beaten by a Republican, while six incumbent Republicans lost to Democrats. Ninety-six percent of the seats stayed with the same party that held them before the election. In the Senate, all of the incumbent Democrats won, while two incumbent Republicans lost. Only one incumbent governor was defeated, Republican Pat McCrory of North Carolina. There wasn’t much change in state legislatures around the country either: Republicans took control of three chambers, while Democrats also took control of three chambers.
That doesn’t look like an electorate seeking change, even if lots of Trump voters told pollsters that’s what they were after. As Lee Drutman noted, “Half of national voters are always going to want ‘change’ because half of all national voters will always want the other party to be in charge” (although in Trump’s case, it was somewhat less than half).
So given that the American people didn’t exactly cry out as one for the enactment of every item on the GOP agenda, you might expect Republicans to tread carefully, if for no reason other than their own political self-interest. But you’d be wrong. As David Weigel reports, they’re preparing to implement “the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s.”
There’s no doubt that Republicans sincerely believe those policies are good for the country. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be advocating them, because they don’t offer a lot of political benefit. When Republicans eliminate health coverage for over 20 million people, cut taxes on the wealthy, slash regulations on Wall Street, defund Planned Parenthood, and maybe even privatize Medicare, they’ll get cheers from some quarters, but those moves are going to be highly unpopular with the public as a whole.
But in the end, a “mandate” resides mostly in the mind of the one who thinks he has it; it’s a matter of perception and permission, and right now Republicans believe they have permission to do anything and everything their hearts have desired for the last eight years. If nothing else, they’ll be able to say that they’re “getting things done.” And they’ll be right.
The public won’t be happy with many of the things Republicans are getting done, but that will only matter once the displeasure becomes intense enough that Trump and Congress begin to grow afraid of it, and restrain themselves in response. Everything we know about them suggests that moment could be a long, long way off.