Mellman: Reputations of leaders in crises

Mellman: Reputations of leaders in crises
© Getty Images

Leaders frequently forge their reputations in crises.

In normal times, competition for the public’s attention is fierce. Crises, by contrast, put leaders at the center of our focus. Almost every eye is firmly fixed on them.

A Business Insider poll found two-thirds of Americans watching the president’s near daily briefings, with a total of 88 percent either watching or reading about them.


Beyond mere visibility is relevance. Though the political class obsesses over each and every move politicians make, most of their actions, most of the time, aren’t viewed as central to most people’s everyday lives.

In crises, leaders’ actions become consequential. In war or pandemic, they can be matters of life and death, offering keys to survival or a path to destruction.

Most often during crises, the impressions etched in the public mind are positive, because, in our times of need, most real leaders have something to offer us: hope, strength, empathy, comfort, vision, a way up, a way out.

In the midst of World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s approval rating soared to 93 percent. President George H.W. Bush’s hit 89 percent, up some 35 points, during the Gulf War, while his son’s approval rating vaulted about 40 points, peaking at a Churchillian 92 percent, just after Sept. 11. He remained between 80 percent and 90 percent for the next four months. Ronald Reagan’s rating rose 8 points to 68 percent after he joked while lying a hospital gurney after having been shot.

Strong positive impressions formed in the crucible of crisis don’t last forever though. Three years after Britons were nearly unanimous in their praise, and with the war having been won, Churchill lost the next election. So did George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush had a longer ride down, hitting 50 percent about the time of his reelection but ending his term near 30 percent.

In our current crisis, a number of governors have similarly seen their images improve. Fourteen of the 15 governors Morning Consult polled saw gains averaging over 20 points.


California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomNIH director implores religious leaders to close places of worship amid COVID-19 surge The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Democratic figures accused of hypocrisy on COVID-19 precautions MORE (D) soared most, from a meager 42 percent to a stellar 83 percent. New York’s Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoBipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package Hundreds protest over NY bar owners arrested for coronavirus violations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates MORE (D) rose from a modest 47 percent to an outstanding 79 percent, while approval of Ohio’s Mike DeWine (R) jumped 31 points.

Among the governors polled, only the foolish Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisRomney blasts Trump lack of leadership during pandemic: 'It's a great human tragedy' Florida officials were asked to avoid public statements on coronavirus before election: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates MORE (R) of Florida, who put spring breakers first, saw his approval rating drop.

Against this background, President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE’s brief and meager gains during the COVID- 19 crisis are truly stunning. Most other leaders are rising in public esteem. Not Trump.

On average Trump’s approval posted a barely perceptible 4-point gain from the beginning of January through his high point, at the start of April. Since then he’s already given back two of those 4 points.

His daily embarrassment of a press conference is clearly proving a liability.

He projects neither empathy nor competence. He demonstrates neither leadership nor strength.

Instead, each and every day, Americans see just how ill-suited Trump is to the nation’s highest office. His narcissism, arrogance, ignorance, pettiness and petulance are on display for millions to see.

Trump’s singular aim seems to be evading responsibility and passing the buck, which, by general consensus, is supposed to stop with him.

And we have yet to see the impact of Monday’s shocking performance, his worst thus far, in sea of disasters.

Perhaps most important, he’s failing. Churchill won the war, as did George H.W. Bush, whatever its ultimate consequences.

After Sept. 11, there was no Sept. 12 or Oct. 11 attack. The absence of the expected follow-on was perceived as a victory.

Death and economic devastation will be the legacy of this president. Failing to either beat the pandemic or offer succor to the public, Trump, like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” is constantly in search of a close-up for which he is not at all ready.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.