The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump ends Year One as the most unpopular president on record. It could have been worse.

From high-profile firings to contentious remarks, the ups and downs of President Trump's first year on the job garnered him historically low approval ratings. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Well before 2017 wrapped up, two things seemed pretty clear. The year would wind up as one of the hottest on record and President Trump would wind up as perhaps the least popular president on record.

On Friday, NBC and the Wall Street Journal released data to the latter point. Trump’s approval rating was 39 percent in their poll, lower than the figure at the end of Barack Obama’s first year (50 percent), George W. Bush’s (82 percent, thanks to 9/11) and Bill Clinton’s (60 percent).

Figures from Gallup’s historic polling show something similar. The most recent figure for Trump has his approval at 39 percent, same as the NBC-Journal poll. That’s eight points lower than Ronald Reagan or Clinton, who were each at 47 percent around the time of their first anniversaries as president.

This, despite the booming economy — which, Gallup noted on Thursday, may be because Americans still give Obama more credit for how the economy is doing.

But there’s an important caveat for any Democrats popping champagne bottles at Trump’s unpopularity. Over the past month or so, his numbers — and the GOP’s — have improved.

In RealClearPolitics’ average of approval polls, Trump’s been underwater since his second week in office. (Meaning that more people disapprove of his job performance than approve.) In May, the difference between those who approved and those who disapproved widened dramatically, so that Americans were about 15 points more likely to say they disapproved than approved. (That drop happened right after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director.)

In mid-December, that gap hit its widest point, with the percentage of those saying they disapproved being 21.1 points higher than those saying they approved. But since then, the gap has narrowed. Now, it’s just slightly lower than it was back in May.

Trump’s unpopularity has been one of the factors cited for predictions that the Republicans could face a bloodbath in congressional elections this November. Another factor that plays a role in those predictions are the numbers from the so-called generic ballot question: Who will you vote for in your local House race, the Democrat or Republican? (Or some similar wording.)

In mid-December, the Democratic advantage on that question hit a remarkable 13 points in the RealClearPolitics average. But since then, the gap has narrowed. In its most recent iteration, the average shows only a 9.1-point gap.

What changed? Trump signed into law a new tax bill passed by his party, for one thing, which may have spurred a positive response from some quarters. It also seems like the surges in December were anomalies and that Trump’s current position is a reversion to the post-May norm. (After all, the turnaround in Trump’s approval started before that bill was signed.)

In short, though, Trump dodged a bullet. Had this dip happened now, at the time that people were gearing up for their first-year assessments, Trump’s position would have looked even worse than it is.

It’s still bad.