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History's lessons for Donald Trump

History's lessons for Donald Trump
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The coronavirus pandemic has upended both our daily lives and politics. This new political normal found Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE enjoying an initial slight uptick in his job approval ratings that coincided with a “rally ‘round the president” phenomena in times of crisis. At the onset of the crisis, 55 percent approved of Trump’s handling of it. A subsequent Gallup poll found Trump’s job performance standing at 49 percent (a new high). Democrats worried whether a “Trump bump” would be an insurmountable hurdle come November.

History has important lessons to teach us about presidents, crises and public opinion. Some past presidents who faced crises and suffered a loss of public confidence recovered. Harry Truman was one. In 1946, Truman’s approval dipped to 27 percent as Americans were fed up with labor strikes and meat shortages. Republicans won the midterm elections. But two years later, Truman recovered and successfully ran against a “Do-Nothing” GOP Congress.

Ronald Reagan was another. During the height of the Iran-Contra affair, his job approval fell to 47 percent. Like Truman, Reagan recovered when he achieved a historic arms agreement with the Soviet Union and reemphasized the importance of family values and limited government. By 1988, his ratings rose to 63 percent, and Vice President George H. W. Bush was elected to what was considered by many to be a third Reagan term.

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Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Obama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle MORE provides one more illustration. In 1993, Clinton proposed letting gays serve in the military (then an unpopular stance), advocated a large government takeover of health care (dubbed “HillaryCare”) and passed an economic program that included tax increases. By 1996, Clinton ditched the first two issues, the economy improved, and he comfortably won reelection.

Finally, George W. Bush found his approval ratings skyrocketing to 90 percent in the aftermath of 9/11. A majority continued to support his job performance well into 2004 — an insurmountable obstacle for Democratic presidential nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Biden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Biden soars as leader of the free world MORE.

Other presidents suffered different fates. In 1952, Harry Truman’s job approval fell to 22 percent (still a record low in the Gallup poll). The Korean War stalemate prompted voters to turn to Dwight D. Eisenhower to fix it.

Lyndon B. Johnson had a similar experience. From a record 61 percent popular vote victory in 1964, Johnson’s approval fell to 35 percent by 1968.

Voters turned to Richard Nixon, who claimed to have a “secret plan” to win the war. Ironically, Nixon himself suffered a similar fate. At the height of the Watergate scandal, his job approval fell to 24 percent.

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Two years later, voters chose Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterFormer CIA head, Cruz trade jabs over killing of Iranian nuclear scientist: 'You are unworthy to represent the good people of Texas' Can Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' MORE to restore honesty and trust in government. But, like Nixon, Carter fell victim to the same phenomena. By 1980, Carter could not get the Iran hostages out of voters’ minds, and his approval rating fell to 37 percent. Voters wanted Ronald Reagan to change course.

Finally, George W. Bush suffered continued low approval ratings when the Iraq War became a quagmire, and his responses to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis were found wanting. As before, voters charged Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Five things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE to effect repairs.

History’s lesson is that presidents who suffer crises and either handle them well or can change the subject thrive. But those who either handle crises poorly or cannot change the subject never recover. Harry Truman could not get voters’ minds off Korea. Lyndon Johnson was stuck with an unpopular war. Richard Nixon could not get voters to focus on anything other than Watergate. Jimmy Carter was taken hostage himself by the mullahs in Iran. George W. Bush found his public standing eroding to unsustainable levels by the end of his term. Each case is an example of presidents not handling things well and unable to change the subject. Each time the opposition party won the White House.

What about Donald Trump? His approval rating during the coronavirus crisis has fallen by eight points and has now slipped into negative territory, with 47 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving. Another survey finds Trump’s overall job approval rating also sliding back into more accustomed territory, at 43 percent.

Whatever the outcome, Trump’s presidency will be judged by his handling of this crisis. If the federal government’s performance improves and the economy bounces back, Trump can easily change the subject to more favorable terrain and win reelection. Should both the public health and economic crises worsen, Trump won’t be able to change the subject, no matter how hard he tries. 

There are strong signs that Americans recognize there is a new normal. Seventy-eight percent are avoiding public gatherings; 87 percent say a recession is likely; 64 percent say they are very likely to stay home; and 66 percent are worried that they or someone in their family will contract the virus. Ninety-three percent are following the crisis closely. And only 44 percent say they will be able to resume their normal routines by June 1. Things have changed.

In a famous poem composed during another pandemic in 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” adding, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” He concluded, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Today our innocence is lost. Passionate intensity will intensify. And the collapse of the center, coupled with Trump’s likely inability to change the subject, will almost certainly have voters looking elsewhere come Election Day.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?"