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Opinion The coronavirus polling bump is real. But Trump’s is abnormally small.

President Trump sits with French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and other world leaders in a Group of Seven working session in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Trump’s job approval ratings are up as the public generally approves of his response to the coronavirus crisis. That positive bump is small, however, compared with the bumps for other Western leaders.

Americans tend to support their presidents in the initial onset of a crisis. The “rally round the flag effect” boosted George W. Bush’s ratings into the stratosphere after 9/11, reaching a high of 89.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average on Oct. 14, 2001. Jimmy Carter’s Gallup approval ratings jumped from about 32 percent in late 1979 to 56 percent after the Iranian hostage crisis began, and George H.W. Bush saw his Gallup ratings jump to 87 percent after Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Other presidents saw smaller approval bumps after less uniform, but notable, events such as the death of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Trump’s approval increase pales in comparison with any of these effects. He has inched up to a new high for his administration, but that is still only 47.3 percent on the RealClearPolitics average. Even though polls show a majority approve of his response to the coronavirus crisis, his overall job approval numbers still lag those who disapprove.

The “rally round the flag effect” has been observed in many other countries, too. It appears that it’s not just Americans who give their leaders the benefit of the doubt early in a crisis. Trump’s bump can thus be compared with others in nearly identical situations to assess how strong his gains are.

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Those gains are comparatively much weaker than most of his peers. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also a polarizing figure in his nation, but he now sports a 72 percent job approval rating. His Conservative Party has also gained in the polls, leading the opposition Labour Party by 21 percent in the Politico Europe polling average. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is as hated by his political opponents as Trump is by his, but 60 percent of Israelis gave Netanyahu a good grade or better on his handling of the crisis in a recent poll. His Likud party is also gaining in recent polls.

Germany’s Angela Merkel and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte also both received more than 70 percent approval from their citizens on their handling of the crisis in recent polls, while Canada’s Justin Trudeau received 64 percent approval of his crisis response. Merkel’s and Trudeau’s bumps have also helped their political parties gain in recent polling. Even France’s embattled President Emmanuel Macron’s overall approval rating is up by five points since the crisis began, although he is still less popular than Trump.

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Some world leaders have obtained bumps as small or smaller than Trump’s. Scott Morrison’s job approval in Australia has improved by only about two points since the crisis began, although those polls are now two weeks old. Sweden’s Stefan Lofven of the Social Democratic Party has improved his party’s poll standing by only one point in March, and Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party has dropped by a point from precrisis levels.

Trump’s relatively paltry polling gains are surely related to the extreme level of distrust he has engendered over his tenure. Polls have regularly shown that most people who disapprove of his job performance do so strongly. People who started the crisis hating Trump were highly unlikely to change their minds so quickly. His faltering performance has not given them reason to do so.

Comparing Trump with Britain’s Johnson helps to show why Trump is faring less well. Trump has behaved erratically in public, sometimes showing calm and strength but also behaving peevishly when questioned. He has also veered from premature optimism in late February to resolute leadership in mid-March only to float a wholly unreasonable desire to end social distancing by Easter. Trump has also used Twitter and appearances on television to attack his Democratic rivals and engage in the mean-spirited behavior that helped cement many people’s low opinions of him to begin with.

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Johnson, on the other hand, has been up to the challenge. Despite some initial hesitation to adopt severe measures to control the virus, he has generally displayed the seriousness and resolution that Trump has not. His public appearances are marked by optimism and courage, and there is no apparent division between his economic advisers and his health advisers. He has not used the crisis to attack his foes, nor has he tried to play down the severity of the situation. He has been everything Trump has not.

Public opinion can move quickly in times of crisis. Trump could gain more support as the crisis progresses, or he could lose the little he has gained. His initial lackluster showing, however, starkly depicts the strong head winds hampering his reelection efforts.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: We finally have the sustainable coronavirus strategy Trump has been demanding

Greg Sargent: Kellyanne Conway’s ugly deceptions preview the Big Lie to come

Richard B. Frank: In fighting covid-19, remember that America’s WWII mobilization was hardly flawless

Elissa Slotkin: Five ways the federal government can help health-care professionals get critical gear

Josh Rogin: The National Security Council sounded early alarms about the coronavirus

Scott Gottlieb and Caitlin M. Rivers: A fast, coordinated response to covid-19 is essential

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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