Even Donald Trump knows he is in a disturbingly deep political hole.
That’s why he went on television Saturday to offer his version of a “compromise” to Democrats. He is trying to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party for the partial government shutdown and to paint them as intransigent and extreme.
But after decades in the public spotlight — and two years in the White House — the president has his own well-earned reputation. Americans either love him or hate him.
His job approval has been poor for months, usually sitting somewhere between the upper 30s and the mid-40s.
Still, has the Trump-Pelosi standoff damaged the president badly? Count me as skeptical, even though polling consistently shows most Americans are not clamoring for a wall and hold the president responsible for the shutdown.
On “Meet the Press” Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd, who is also NBC News’ political director, asserted that the president is suffering politically. “The government shutdown is now in its 30th day. And the spread between Mr. Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings has grown noticeably since the start of this shutdown. He went from 10 points underwater to 15, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s polling average,” Todd said.
In fact, looking at the change in the margin between Trump’s job approval and his disapproval exaggerates any alleged “change” in public opinion.
That 5-point change probably reflects a drop of 2.5 points in Trump’s favorable rating and an increase of 2.5 points in his disapproval.
Given the usual difficulties of polling these days and polls’ statistical margin of error, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s standing has eroded dramatically.
A small dip? Possibly. A significant downturn? Not yet.
As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup wrote a week ago following a Jan. 2-10 Gallup poll, “Trump’s rating has been little affected by the shutdown.”
Gallup showed Trump’s job approval at 37 percent, down 2 points from his approval before Christmas.
Gallup found what you would expect — virtually no change in Trump’s job ratings among Republicans and Democrats, but a measurable drop among independents.
Traditionally, independents are less engaged in politics, so their opinions tend to move around much more than partisans.
Economist/YouGov polling from late November 2018 to mid-January 2019 also showed little or no movement in the president’s job ratings, ranging from 43-46 percent approval over that period of time.
Of course, this is but a single poll, and other surveys, including for CNN and NPR/PBS/Marist, suggest at least some movement.
So, this is one of those cases where you can find data to support whatever view you hold. But given the country’s polarization, it’s difficult to believe the shutdown is having a substantial impact on the president’s job approval numbers.
The wall and Trump have become one, both for supporters of the president and for opponents.
As Gallup’s Frank Newport wrote recently, “[Trump] is very unlikely to lose support for the wall among his base, regardless of what he does. It also follows that Trump is unlikely to gain support for his wall among those not in his base.”
But while the shutdown has not yet redrawn the political battle lines or remade party coalitions, it is not without risk for Trump.
The standoff could further erode the president’s already poor standing among independents, and while that’s not likely to move the needle much, Trump can’t afford to lose any support given his very narrow victory in 2016 and the disastrous Republican midterm House losses.
The deadlock over the wall and the shutdown also make it impossible for Trump to talk about other issues, like the economy, where he has obvious accomplishments and should have an advantage.
Even more dangerous for Republicans, the standoff could eventually damage the economy.
As the New York Times reported last week, “The revised estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers show that the shutdown, now in its fourth week, is beginning to have real economic consequences. The analysis, and other projections from outside the White House, suggests that the shutdown has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the United States economy into a contraction.”
Slower growth, whether because of eroding consumer confidence or increased nervousness in the business community, could have a much greater impact on Trump’s ratings than the shutdown.
The same goes for the results of the special counsel investigation of Robert S. Mueller III, of course.
The president’s “base” strategy of whipping up support among his acolytes and relying entirely on the Republican Congress has caused him to paint himself into a corner.
Now, unable to crush Pelosi through sheer force of will, the president may feel he must do something dramatic to reset his presidency. The question is whether that step would stiffen the resolve of opponents, rattle his core supporters or fundamentally improve his positioning.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2019.