Tell us about what you learned from the data Gallup released about the Trump transition just before the inauguration.
It’s been quite different from most of the data we’ve gathered on transitions dating back to Bill Clinton’s initial transition. Generally, presidents go through a honeymoon phase with very high approval ratings. Unlike most modern presidents, this administration is starting with an uncharacteristically low approval rating.
"A recent presentation here at Gallup found there has been a cratering level of confidence in government institutions"
The Trump Administration started at a low point with 51 percent disapproval for the transition and right now it has dropped a bit and we have Trump himself with a 46 percent approval rating and a 45 percent disapproval rating. It’s important to keep this within the context of a contentious election and a divided nation. The country is in a very different place than when Obama was elected and re-elected, and this shows in a lot of our data. A recent presentation here at Gallup found there has been a cratering level of confidence in government institutions among the populace. This runs the gamut from government institutions to institutions like the media, voting process, and Congress itself. One exception to this is the military, where public confidence remains high.
What hasn’t been a major part of the discussion is how Americans feel about their own lives. Interestingly, the public’s lack of confidence in national institutions is not necessarily reflected in their evaluation of their own lives. Obviously, confidence in government is not very high, and this is a common theme across western democracies. We’ve seen the experience of Western Europe replicated here in the United States, with people questioning the social contract, capitalism, and representative government. The outlook for 2017 is a little scary. In light of Brexit and the election of an unconventional administration here in the United States, it really throws upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Italy into the spotlight. Populist parties on both sides of the political spectrum will put Western democracies to the test.
When it comes to the political rhetoric around leadership and job growth, things are consistently moving towards protectionism and suspicion of globalization. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled his visit to the United States, and there is talk of renegotiating or walking away from NAFTA, which would have been unthinkable four years ago. Gallup will continue to follow the pulse of public opinion in the US, but opinions are shifting, and the United States has not proven to be that much of an exception to these overall trends.
“Life evaluation tends to closely follow people’s assessment of their own personal economic situation.”
If Donald Trump is the solution to low confidence in government institutions, why are his transition numbers so challenged?
We simply don’t know yet. We’re seeing a leader and a transition that has taken an extremely unconventional approach to discourse and interaction with media. I think people are still in a wait-and-see mode in terms of what campaign promises will be kept, and what that will mean for their lives. The other thing to remember is that over half the country did not vote for Donald Trump, so it’s not surprising people who were drawn to Bernie Sanders are equally dissatisfied with government, despite favoring very different solutions from those supported on the right. The takeaway is that a lack of faith in government institutions does not automatically translate to support for Trump’s message, despite common messages of protectionism, non-interventionism and a focus on the middle class.
The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, was centered on the inclusion of marginalized groups, and securing the rights of various minority groups. Rather than focusing on fixing a broken government, her campaign focused on the dangers of electing Donald Trump and changing things in the civil rights space. It remains to be seen how Trump’s bold executive orders will translate into policy, and how those policies will impact people’s lives, and how that will be reflected in our polling.
Looking back at historical data regarding dissatisfaction with government institutions, can a single cause be identified?
It’s probably a confluence of issues rather than a single variable. Obviously there was a dip during the economic crisis, but it really began before then. A lack of growth in middle-class incomes since the 1990s has been huge. The president doesn’t really create jobs, but much of the political rhetoric around government revolves around the economy. We’ve also seen a decline in confidence in the media long before the economic crisis, which suggests it was triggered by the shift to an increasingly partisan form of news coverage. A recent op-ed by longtime CNN reporter Jessica Yellin argued the network should become a public trust, because it has become a profit-making endeavor rather than a true news entity. Congress took a huge hit in credibility because of the government shutdown in 2013.
Interestingly, individuals have more positive views of their own representatives than they do of Congress as a whole. The same holds true for the education system. There is speculation that increased media coverage of these challenges drives public opinion that things are falling apart nationally, even though people tend to feel more positively about local conditions.
Is there a nexus between Gallup’s personal wellbeing measurements and the dismal national outlook?
Life evaluation tends to closely follow people’s assessment of their own personal economic situation. We found life evaluation metrics tanked dramatically in 2008 with the economic crisis. While one could argue there has been something of a recovery in people’s own assessments, a report led by my colleague Dr. Johnathan Rothwell called “No Recovery: An Analysis of Long-Term U.S. Productivity Decline” found the recovery in personal assessment did not extend to macro numbers. Most obviously, people have low confidence in government, and have a problem with the performance of government. It seems unlikely that President Trump’s tactic of attacking institutions that already suffer from low levels of public confidence will increase confidence in said institutions.
We’re in uncharted waters and we’ve never seen this low level of confidence in basic institutions before. This is particularly true of the election process itself. When you ask Americans whether they have confidence in the honesty of their elections, our numbers are quite similar to many developing nations across the world that are not democracies. So assessment of the electoral process itself is not flattering, despite the perception of the US as the pinnacle of democracy.
Why do you think that is?
It’s important to remember there is a huge portion of the population that doesn’t vote regularly. Many respondents don’t participate in the process, but express views based on hearsay or their own assumptions. People are more confident their vote will be counted fairly in their own district than they are of the national process, which could reflect a lack of confidence in the Electoral College as a whole.
What is the general trajectory of an administration’s approval ratings, and what will this mean for the Trump Administration’s approval ratings moving into 2017?
We usually find there is a honeymoon period that lasts about 100 days or a little longer, followed by a noticeable and steady decline in approval ratings. Obviously, moments of crisis like 9/11 result in a “rally around the flag effect” as we saw under George W. Bush. Most other presidencies have started in a very different place than the Trump Administration. Right now, President Trump’s approval rating is at 46%. President Obama’s approval rating was in this area for much of his presidency, before climbing towards the end of his second term, exiting office at 58% approval. Of course, every presidency unfolds differently, and I would caution against assuming this presidency will follow this general trajectory, as it is clear to me that the Trump Administration is adamant about taking an unorthodox approach to interacting with the public and addressing policy issues.
What are you seeing in terms of how the citizens of the United States view the rest of the world?
We tend to do more on how the world views the United States than vice-versa. The big question this year is whether the United States will be the same country the world has relied upon in the past. The situation with Mexico and NAFTA is a very clear indication we could be in for some surprises in that relationship. Walking away from the TPP is also a very stark signal. We’ve seen countries like Australia and New Zealand ask China to step in and lead the TPP, but this probably won’t happen. President Trump has said he’ll be pursuing bilateral trade deals with TPP nations, and one could argue the TPP was more about geopolitics than trade. There are certainly more questions than answers, but it seems things will be moving in a more regional direction than an increasingly globalized one in 2017.
Are there regions where there has been a particularly sharp hit to the perception of the United States?
It may surprise people to know approval ratings for the United States in sub-Saharan Africa are generally very high, partially due to aid programs. Not surprisingly, approval ratings across the Middle East are rather low, which I don’t expect to improve. President Obama was fairly popular across Europe, and it will be interesting to see how that approval rating shifts under President Trump, given his questioning of military commitments in the region. I’ll be paying close attention to US approval ratings in Europe, particularly in the Baltic states which are closer to Russia. Latin America will also be very interesting to watch based on current events. Mexico is the first or second most important trading partner for the US depending on how you calculate it, as 40% of the everything Mexico sells has parts or components made in the United States.
What are some similar indications from Japan and Canada?
Since Obama’s election, one of the highest approval ratings has been in Canada and US approval in Japan tends to be relatively high. One of Defense Secretary Mattis’ first trips will be to Japan, which has been undergoing a massive transformation of its military posture, at the encouragement of the US. There was a great deal of cooperation between the Abe and Obama Administrations. It’s important to remember it was difficult for Prime Minister Abe to convince Japan to join TPP. Many industries like automakers and rice producers were strongly against joining TPP negotiations, so the US walking away will not automatically harm relations. The Philippines will be interesting as well. President Duterte was fairly antagonistic to President Obama, making stark statements about working more closely with China and Russia despite popular support for US leadership in the country. There you see populist rhetoric not aligning with popular sentiment.
What do you see as the major trends to keep an eye on at the individual level?
We’ve been doing the Gallup World Poll for eleven years, and starting in 2008, every country we poll has cited jobs as the most important issue. This is true across all regions and age groups. Leaders in wealthy countries and developing countries alike need to take heed of this, or we’ll see continued fraying of the political establishment. The whole name of the game now is jobs. Global security, of course, remains important, specifically in Europe and the Middle East, but if countries can’t solve the jobs problem, the rest of the political order will continue to stem from there.
What other issues is jobs beating out or competing against?
In some countries, security is a top issue, while the cost of goods is important in others. The cost of education is important, particularly in developing nations, but it really runs the gamut. When you move away from jobs, issues become much more localized. The immigration issue in Europe is huge, but I would argue that it is actually a jobs issue. For example, Germany allowed 800,000 immigrants to enter the country because of requests from companies like Siemens looking for both skilled and unskilled labor. Other than jobs, it really depends what region of the world you’re talking about.
Are there any emerging trends to look out for moving forward?
The most critical thing in the short-term is Brexit and how the United States will position itself. It seems clear if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in a relatively quick fashion, we will see major economies lining up to follow suit. The transatlantic relationship has been sacrosanct in the developed world since the end of WWII, and if that changes, it could have massive repercussions.
Turkey is also worth watching, as it has gradually been shifting away from NATO and becoming closer to Russia, to the point of flying joint missions to combat ISIS in northern Syria. At the risk of sounding Eurocentric, Europe will be the place to watch in 2017. If Europe can’t stick together, it will be much easier for China to assert itself on a global level in a way we’ve not seen in our lifetime. The Middle East will continue to experience conflicts and difficulties, but 2017 could be a little better than years past due to the winding down of the war in Syria.
What should we be looking for from Gallup in 2017?
We will be issuing our report on the state of the workplace in the coming months and we are hosting a series of events with the Wall Street Journal on global business and trade. We also do a lot of work on international migration and employment, and we hope our work will inform the policy debate in 2017 and beyond.