During times of crisis, it’s not uncommon for America to rally around its president and show the rest of the world why the United States is one of the strongest and most united countries in the world. From the first Gulf War to 9/11, most presidents have experienced a bump in their approval ratings as the country deals with unprecedented times of uncertainty and fear.
But from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has shown the country he wasn’t serious about protecting American citizens. As a result, he hasn’t seen much of a bump in his approval ratings as previous presidents. In fact, any gains he’s made as a result have been wiped away as his administration continues to mismanage the response to COVID-19.
Bumps in presidential approval ratings during times of crisis are almost a predictable part of American history. From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12-point jump after Pearl Harbor to Jimmy Carter’s 24 percent increase in approval after the Iranian hostage crisis, it’s easy for Americans to “rally around the flag” in times of crisis. The last two Republican presidents before Donald Trump also felt the effect.
George H. W. Bush’s Gallup approval ratings were one of the highest presidential approval ratings in history because of how he handled the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s. Though it didn’t do much for his reelection efforts thanks to a worsening economy, President Bush’s approval ratings surged from 64 percent to 89 percent after victory was declared.
The next Republican president and son of H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, also saw large increases in his approval ratings after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and during his handling of the disaster. His approval ratings went from 51 percent to 81 percent immediately following 9/11, and ultimately hit 90 percent in the weeks following, an all-time high according to Gallup. And while he left office with only 34 percent of Americans approving of his presidency, Bush’s first term saw a healthy 62 percent approval rating.
Now comes President Trump. As arguably one of the most polarizing political figures in American history, people tend to feel strongly about him one way or another. He took office with 45.5 percent of Americans approving his handling of the presidency and has largely hovered around a 40 percent approval rating throughout most of his first term. So, what was the “rally around the flag” effect when COVID-19 started to spread across the United States? A small four point increase would bring his approval rating to an all-time high of 48.8 percent on April 5, but any gains have since been erased, with his most recent approval rating hovering right around 44.3 percent.
So why the small increase when the past two presidents of the same party saw large double-digit increases? It’s clear Americans can see past the smoke and mirrors and acknowledge the president has grossly mishandled the response to COVID-19 from the beginning. From blatantly ignoring warnings from members of his own administration, dismantling the White House National Security Council office meant to prepare for and address pandemics, to repeating false claims about testing, and more, it’s hard to look at Donald Trump and use the word “presidential” to describe his leadership at this time. What Americans saw with Presidents H.W Bush and W. Bush were leaders who were prepared to weather the storm and take responsibility for their country – even if Americans didn’t ultimately agree with their actions.
From the start, Trump has refused to take responsibility and has instead placed the blame on everyone from China to the World Health Organization. His handling of COVID-19 is the opposite of the phrase popularized by President Truman, “the buck stops here.”
In Truman’s farewell address he said, “The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” Trump’s passed the buck to virtually everyone but himself and the American people are noticing. What that means for his reelection efforts, however, remains to be seen.