Off to the Races

Donald Trump and the Cycles of the Presidency

Presidents are expected to become more effective as they learn on the job, but they also tend to lose popularity.

President Trump after delivering his inaugural address at the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

Given how extraordinary Donald Trump’s nomination and election were, it’s helpful to benchmark how his presidency is going compared to the norm.

Republicans typically nominate an establishment figure, often whoever is next in line, and someone who loses the popular vote by more than a percentage point or two usually comes up short in the Electoral College as well. It had been 140 years since a candidate lost the popular vote by this much yet still won the electoral vote. Nothing is normal when Trump is involved.

In his terrific new book, Trump’s First Year, Rhodes College political scientist and presidential scholar Michael Nelson argues that “Donald Trump was fortunate to take office when he did,” noting that “unlike Abraham Lincoln, he did not have to deal with the secession of seven states during the period between his election and inauguration. Unlike Richard Nixon, he did not inherit a war in which more than a half-million American soldiers were bogged down. Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, he did not take the oath of office in the midst of a massive financial crisis.” Nelson adds, “The stock market was booming: From a modern low of 6,547 in March 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had nearly tripled to 18,332 by Election Day,” and “unlike all of his recent Republican predecessors during the past three-fourths of a century, Trump took office as the head of a unified government, with a GOP majority” in both the House and Senate.

Nelson flags fascinating observations in two older but important books that give us an idea of what should be happening now and over the next couple of years, at least theoretically. A book by the Brookings Institution’s Paul C. Light, The President’s Agenda: Domestic Policy Choice from Kennedy to Clinton, first published in 1982 and most recently updated in 1999, points to two simultaneous cycles that presidents generally face: a “cycle of increasing effectiveness” and a “cycle of decreasing influence.”

Light’s theory of the cycle of increasing effectiveness argues that “presidents can be expected to learn over time. The presidential information base should expand; the president’s personal expertise should increase.” Simply put, presidents get better at their job over time. But at the same time, Light’s theory of the cycle of decreasing influence points to a decline of “capital, time, and energy” that takes place; the goodwill and honeymoon that new presidents generally enjoy gradually gives way. Light quotes an aide to President Ford saying, “Each decision is bound to hurt somebody; each appointment is going to cut into support. There’s really no way that the president can win. If he doesn’t make choices, he will be attacked for being indecisive. If he does, he will satisfy one group but anger three others.”

Nelson’s book then points to observations by Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley in their 1992 book, Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. They note that “the polls decline over time, in what we call a ‘decay curve,’ independently of anything a president does. During a first term, the polls begin a significant decline at the sixth month and continue to fall into the third year. Only as the next election approaches do the tides of approval begin to turn.”

Given Trump’s lack of governmental experience and familiarity with many of the issues facing a modern president, his cycle of increasing effectiveness should be quite real. It’s an exaggeration to say that every month he knows exponentially more than he did the month before, but not that much of one. At the same time, Trump’s cycle of decreasing influence and popularity may be less dramatic than with other presidents. Trump’s best job approval in the Gallup poll was 45 percent in his first week in office, a point less than his share of the national popular vote; his average Gallup approval rating has been 39 percent, a point above his 38 percent approval (57 percent disapproval) for this past week. (The poll averages are slightly higher: RealClearPolitics has it at 42 percent, while FiveThirtyEight’s is 40 percent.)

Since Trump’s peak wasn’t very high, the rate of decline won’t be as steep—he can’t drop much among Democrats or independents, and there is no sign that Republicans are abandoning him.

So theoretically, he should have an upward climb in effectiveness with less of a decline in influence, though midterm losses of GOP majorities in the House and/or Senate could make a difference. But then again, arguably President Clinton was more effective in the six years after Democrats lost their majorities than he was in the first two when his party was in charge. We’ll see if Trump can follow that example.

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