In his first two years in office, President Trump has largely underperformed the even modest expectations that Americans had for him as he took office in January 2017, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The new assessment of Trump, which measures his public standing across 10 major issues and character traits, comes as his overall job-approval rating languishes at 37 percent, one point above his record low in August and at two previous points. Nearly 6 in 10 say they have an unfavorable view of the president as a person. Similar majorities say they doubt his empathy, honesty and ability to make political deals, although on several of those attitudes, his ratings have not changed significantly during his time in office.
As he begins the second half of his first term, Trump has suffered one of the most significant defeats of his presidency, having capitulated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other congressional Democrats in a standoff over building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a dispute that brought about the longest U.S. government shutdown in history.
The survey was completed before Trump agreed to reopen the government without a commitment to fund a border wall, which he has championed since he was a candidate. Those negotiations will continue over the next three weeks. Trump’s failed gamble that he could force Democrats to blink first has caused dismay among many congressional Republicans and threatens to call into question the president’s oft-stated claim of being an effective dealmaker.
A 57 percent majority rates Trump negatively for his handling of border security, the signature issue on which he began his campaign. That is similar to the 54 percent who oppose building a wall, which he insists is necessary to stem a “growing humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border.
The good news for Trump is that his opponents are not popular, either. The survey shows that just 35 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country’s future. But just 34 percent say that of Democrats in Congress, 30 percent for Republicans in Congress and 30 percent for Pelosi.
The depth of the doubts about Trump’s capacity to make good future decisions, however, is greater than it is for Pelosi, congressional Democrats or congressional Republicans. Almost half of all Americans (48 percent) say they have no confidence in Trump’s future decision-making. For Pelosi, that number was 37 percent. For congressional Democrats and Republicans, about 3 in 10 give each the lowest level of confidence.
On economic issues, Americans had high expectations about the ability of the New York businessman and builder to handle an economy that was growing steadily, if slowly, after the financial crash a decade earlier.
In the intervening two years, the pace of economic growth has increased and the unemployment rate has dropped even lower, both in part because of the big tax-cut bill that Republicans approved and the president signed. The stock market, after a strong rise during much of the first two years of Trump’s presidency, has recently experienced a sharp drop and volatility amid doubts about the future.
To the American people, that record adds up to lowered ratings for the president since his inauguration. At that time, about 6 in 10 Americans expected him to perform well on these fronts. Today, the public is divided evenly, with 49 percent giving him positive marks on his handling of the economy and 49 percent giving him negative marks. Even those most optimistic or pessimistic are split evenly, with 27 percent saying his handling has been “excellent” and 27 percent saying it has been “poor.”
The starkest gap between Trump’s current ratings and Americans’ initially positive expectations is on the federal deficit. Two years ago, 50 percent of Americans thought Trump would do an excellent or good job handling the deficit. The new poll finds 33 percent saying he has done well, a 17-point drop that occurred across party lines. Notably, many Republicans have shifted in their views. Two years ago, 87 percent of Republicans said they expected him to deal with the deficit effectively. Today, 67 percent of that group think he has done that. Among independents, the number who say he would effectively tackle the deficit has dropped from 52 percent to 27 percent.
Another issue where Trump has performed below initial expectations is health care, where his positive ratings have fallen from 44 percent to 33 percent. The sharpest falloff came among independents, from 48 percent saying they expected him to do a good job with the issue to 22 percent. When Trump came into office, he and Republicans promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but those aspirations eventually died in Congress.
Along with the deficit and health care, Americans grade Trump the worst on issues dealing with women and race relations, both areas in which the president started with low expectations. About one-third say he has done an excellent or good job on each in his first two years, with more than 6 in 10 adults calling his performance poor or not so good.
Americans’ ratings of Trump’s handling of international crises are also more in line with expectations at the time of his inauguration, with 43 percent saying he has done an excellent or good job , similar to 44 percent who expected him to do so two years ago. Trump’s performance in responding to terrorism was slightly worse, people said. A 56 percent majority had expected him to be successful, but a slightly lower 50 percent rate his performance positively after two years.
Trump receives lower marks as a person than as a president, with 1 in 3 Americans saying they have a favorable impression of him “as a person.” On attributes, Americans were least likely to say Trump understands problems of people like them or is “honest and trustworthy” but they were closely divided on whether he is a strong leader.
On attributes relating to the conduct of a president, majorities say Trump does not have the personality or temperament to be president, and is not an effective political dealmaker. Nor do they think he has fulfilled a basic campaign promise, with a majority saying he has not brought needed change to Washington.
On the economy, the drop to Trump’s current ratings was largest among political independents. Two-thirds (67 percent) had hoped for a good performance but just under half said he did a good job, a decrease of 18 percentage points.
The perceptions of Trump vary across demographic and regional lines. Both white and nonwhite people rated Trump’s economic performance lower than they had expected, with similar declines. But a majority of whites, 58 percent, approve of his economic performance while only a third of nonwhite Americans gave him good or excellent grades on the economy.
On a question of how well Trump would handle issues with special concern for women, Trump’s overall rating has declined only a bit, from 37 percent positive to 33 percent positive. Among men, there has been no change in two years. Among women, Trump’s positive rating on this question fell from 33 percent to 23 percent.
Regionally, dissatisfaction with the economy was greatest in the West, where 58 percent of people had expected success but only 40 percent say Trump did well. The South had held the highest expectations when Trump began, with two-thirds optimistic (66 percent), but just over half now approve of his performance. The Midwest showed the least disappointment, dropping only five percentage points, to 54 percent approval.
Disappointment with Trump’s help for the middle class was strongest among households with lower incomes. When he took office, about half of families of all incomes expected him to have success in helping the middle class. But after two years, one-third of households making less than $50,000 thought he was doing succeeding, while 43 percent of higher-income households gave him a thumbs-up.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 21-24 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, with 65 percent reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. Overall results have a 3.5 percentage-point margin of sampling error for the full sample. The error margin is 5-5.5 points for questions asked of a half-sample of respondents.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.