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.
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.
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.
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.