It’s not enough for President Trump to be president. That position, generally considered one of the most significant marks of achievement in American society, is not enough for Trump. He must be — and often insists that he is — one of the greatest presidents, if not the greatest. Last month he claimed to have been the most popular Republican in history, beating even Abraham Lincoln’s poll numbers. That’s a bit like saying that you’re a faster race car driver than Ben Franklin, since neither race cars nor scientific polling existed before the 20th century.
At the very least, Trump insists that he’s better than the guy who preceded him in the job. As he argued on Twitter on Sunday:
He’s made similar claims before. When he’s not claiming that polls are fake or cherry-picking polls that show him doing well or, as he did in March, claiming that “sometimes they say, you add nine. Whatever Trump’s poll number is, add nine,” as though the polls broadly underestimate his real support — when he’s not doing those things, he’ll occasionally just simply claim to be more popular than Barack Obama was 19 months into his tenure.
As it turns out, that’s less untrue than it used to be.
Unlike Trump, Obama’s approval numbers began to decline shortly after he took office. The result is that while Trump’s poll numbers have been remarkably steady over both the long and recent term, the dip in Obama’s approval rating over time means that the two are now at about the same point, according to RealClearPolitics’s polling averages for each president.
There are a few reasons. The first is that Trump’s approval among members of his own party has not fallen much since he took office. Obama’s fell nearly 10 points from his first 30 days to the equivalent most recent 30 days.
While Democrats haven’t shifted their opinions of Trump much, from 2009 to 2010 views of Obama among Republicans fell dramatically.
Interestingly, so did approval for Obama among independents. Over the course of his presidency, once his approval numbers among Republicans fell, it was movement among independents that determined his poll numbers. For Trump, no one’s opinions have changed much at all.
So it’s not the case that Trump has “better numbers than Obama at this point, by far” — at least overall. But unlike past occasions when Trump has claimed similar things, he at least didn’t have far worse numbers while making the claim.
In another way, though, he’s actually got a point.
On specific issues, Trump is viewed more favorably than Obama was at this point in his presidency. Compare Fox News polling on the economy from July 2010 to July 2018. Trump is 15 points higher.
In CNN polling, the gap was smaller, but Trump still had a seven-point edge.
Of course, Obama was also still dealing with the effects of a massive recession, and, of course, his numbers on the economy improved over time. But at this point in the presidency of each, Trump’s numbers are better.
On immigration, the numbers are more mixed. Fox News polling shows Trump outpolling Obama, 19 months in . . .
. . . while CNN shows a slight advantage for Obama.
There aren’t a lot of poll numbers to compare for the two, because the subjects being asked about change over time. In 2010, voters were asked about race relations and the budget deficit, for example, neither of which made it into 2018 polls by Fox News or CNN. Trump may not have fared as well in those comparisons.
Take, for example, CNN’s question about health-care policy. Obama has an 11-point edge over Trump on this question.
It’s worth considering what the numbers above indicate. Trump’s approval, particularly among members of his own party, is likely bolstered by the strength of the economy. In July 2010, unemployment was at 9 percent, more than twice what it is now — but Trump’s approval rating on the economy is only seven points higher than Obama’s in CNN’s poll. Maybe partisanship would keep those numbers up if the economy faltered, but maybe not. Put another way: If Trump were inheriting the same economy that Obama did, how would his poll numbers look?
While it’s not clear where Trump got his comparison to Lincoln, there was a recent survey asking people to name the best president of their lifetimes. Among Republicans, Trump finished second, behind Ronald Reagan. Overall, he finished fourth.
Obama was ranked first.