President Trump faces a number of challenges as he begins his new job at the White House. He has the lowest approval rating of any president to enter the Oval Office in at least four decades. His first weekend in office was dominated by news of his press secretary telling easily disproved claims from the White House podium, which adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.” On the first full day of his presidency, more than a million people turned out for protests across the United States and the globe.
But a new poll from Gallup is a reminder that Trump faces another big challenge, one that could make it more difficult for him to rally Congress or coalesce the American people around his agenda. More than almost all presidents over the past 50 years for which Gallup has data, Trump faces little agreement by the American public on the greatest test the nation confronts, a reminder not only of how politically polarized the country remains but how difficult the leadership task is that stands before him.
Eleven percent of the 1,032 adults surveyed in early January said the most important problem is the economy, while another 11 percent said it was dissatisfaction with the government. Another 10 percent put race relations at the top of the list, and 9 percent said health care. Eight percent each said unemployment and elections or elections reform.
That 11 percent at the top of the list for the economy and government dissatisfaction were, Gallup wrote in a blog post Friday, “the lowest percentages recorded for the most commonly mentioned ‘most important problem’ ” since the polling organization began asking the question in 1939.
Without an economic recession or the military's involvement in a major war, Gallup said, Trump faces less cohesion around a singular problem during his first month in office than most of his predecessors. In January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in for his first term amid the global financial crisis, 57 percent of respondents said the economy was the country's most dominant problem. At the time of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, after the recession of the early 1990s, 35 percent named the economy and another 22 percent named unemployment as the country's chief quandary.
During both Ronald Reagan's and Gerald Ford's first month in office, 70 percent or more of Americans said inflation or the cost of living was at the top, while 41 percent of Americans named the Vietnam War when Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969. (In its report, Gallup did not list the dominant problems for incoming administrations before 1969, and no data were available for the months of Jimmy Carter's and George H.W. Bush's inaugurations.)
Trump's numbers are relatively similar to the inauguration of George W. Bush, when, in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, 13 percent of respondents named “ethics and moral decline” as the country's top problem. Twelve percent named education, 9 percent said crime and violence, and 9 percent named dissatisfaction with government.
The dispersed opinion is a clear illustration of the polarized electorate that both Trump and Bush faced when they were inaugurated. Both won the electoral college but lost the popular vote in particularly divisive elections where there was not a “towering problem,” in Gallup's description, that a majority or near majority of Americans were most concerned about trying to solve.
But it's also a reminder of the leadership challenge Trump will face in galvanizing the kind of buy-in and broad-based supportive public sentiment that can come when the public shares the same concerns over the country's biggest problem. It's much harder to rally people around a common vision or lead the country forward when there's little agreement on what they should be rallying for.
Of course, with Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Trump has advantages in getting his agenda through, however divided the country may be on political priorities. A brash leadership style bent on dealmaking and public condemnation of those who disagree with him is likely to embolden him, even if agreement over the problems is limited.
But without an imposing issue at the top of Americans' list of concerns, Trump's presidency is beginning with little agreement over where his greatest focus should be. In his inaugural address, Trump sounded the sort of populist, anti-establishment, nationalist themes that were common during his campaign. Yet beyond the numbers listed above about the economy and dissatisfaction with the government, issues like income inequality, immigration and foreign trade were not among the most common responses.
Perhaps ironically, there's one other issue that failed to rise to the top of Americans' list of biggest challenges during the January poll: unifying the country. In Gallup's January poll, just 3 percent said it was the most important problem facing the country today.