Leadership Crisis

December 10, 1979. Fifty-two Americans had been taken hostage in Iran one month earlier, and the public was rallying around Jimmy Carter. The deeply unpopular president saw his job approval soar thirty points to 60% in just a few weeks. At the time it was the largest short-term increase ever recorded by the Gallup organization. “It’s not just a case of the public rallying around the president,” Gallup president Andrew Kohut told The New York Times. “It’s a growing admiration and respect. The public approves of all the basic elements of the Carter handling of the crisis.”

We know how this story ends. Protracted, unsuccessful diplomatic negotiations. A failed rescue effort. ABC News launching a late-night program called America Held Hostage (it would later be renamed Nightline) that framed the crisis as the entire nation under siege and counted the number of days since the crisis began, regularly reminding everyone about Carter’s impotence. As the days increased, public support for the president declined, then disappeared. He was defeated in a landslide eleven months later. 

As we look today at a small bump in Donald Trump’s job approval and modestly positive assessments of his handling of the pandemic, I’m reminded of Carter, the last president before Trump to hold office at the tail end of a political regime. Carter got a large bounce in public support in part because he was so far down to start. But note how Kohut interprets the bounce in terms of public appreciation of how professionally Carter was managing the crisis. In an emergency, people want competent leadership above all else. That Carter would eventually be dismissed by the public for being unable to manage the office speaks to how people expect competent management to generate results, and fairly swiftly. Goodwill has its limits.  

The pattern of what public opinion specialists call “rally” effects is consistent and well documented. From the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War to September 11, Americans have rallied around presidents in moments of crisis and uncertainty. These rallies follow a predictable pattern, starting with a swift and often steep increase in public support at the start of the crisis, followed by a gradual decline as the crisis drags on unsatisfactorily or is resolved and forgotten. When the crisis passes, or when Election Day arrives, people pass judgment on the president’s performance. This explains the sorry ending to Carter’s story.

It also makes the response to Trump’s initial handling of the pandemic stand out. Starting about two weeks ago, there is evidence of an uptick in Trump’s job approval of about three percentage points. It’s too soon to know if the upward trend will continue (there is some evidence that it has already peaked), but even if it does this is a very tepid response to such a serious and disruptive event. It is the most anemic initial rally in the history of polling.

There are several possible explanations for this. One is that Trump spent weeks downplaying the severity of the pandemic, making blithe predictions that the whole thing would blow over by April and telling people to go on with their lives. Another is that the pandemic has not yet affected the country evenly. There are still enormous differences between the catastrophic experiences of New York and Washington state and parts of the interior and Sun Belt, where the pandemic is still a more distant event (although that, unfortunately, is rapidly changing). Even the tremendous dislocation to the economy is only starting to be felt this week.

But the primary reasons why Trump has not experienced a strong rally are hyper-partisanship and inexplicably poor leadership. Rallies happen when the president’s opponents and independents get on board. While polling data confirms Trump’s modest approval blip is the result of small changes in the attitudes of some independents and Democrats, the lack of a rally surge reflects our hardened political attitudes. We are so polarized today that it is difficult to see this president without looking through partisan filters.

Then there is his job performance. I can imagine that some share of Trump’s critics would be willing to toss off their filters and rally around him — at least temporarily — if his approach to the crisis wasn’t delayed, inept, scattershot and self-serving. There is a natural tendency to look to leaders for reassurance in times of uncertainty, but every time Trump opens his mouth he creates more trepidation among those who are not predisposed to support him. Outside his base, what people see is a president unprepared for the pandemic, unable to provide sufficient testing to get ahead of the virus, unable to make sure medical personnel have the supplies they need to treat patients and protect themselves. They see someone more interested in his political fortunes than saving lives, whose message changes daily, whose press conferences are filled with misinformation and play like the self-aggrandizing political rallies temporarily shut down by the epidemic. He condemns governors who don’t support him politically and chews out reporters he doesn’t like. It’s hardly surprising that, unlike Carter, Trump doesn’t go into this moment with a broad sense that he is managing the crisis capably. 

If these dynamics deny Trump the public support his predecessors enjoyed at the onset of other national emergencies, they will likely work in his favor to limit the damage to his approval later on. Throughout his term of office, Trump’s job approval ratings have remained within a narrow band in the low-to-mid 40s. Unless the events of the coming weeks splinter his base, he is unlikely to see his scores nosedive into the low 30s like Carter did.  But that doesn’t mean he will avoid the same fate in November.

Presidents can survive a serious public health crisis. They can survive a serious economic crisis. But it is much harder to survive a public health and economic crisis made infinitely worse by a leadership crisis. That is the burden Trump will face because, like Carter, it is his leadership that voters will evaluate in the end.