I’d expect POTUS to throw a fit upon learning that he’s no better than tied with O in a popularity contest normally, but this result is progress for him. He finished second behind Obama the past two years, a poor result for a sitting president. Typically, if you’re in the Oval Office, you’re also America’s most admired man as measured by Gallup. That distinction had eluded Trump — until now.
It’s extremely on-brand for American politics circa 2019 that a president who’s been impeached (or, technically, about to be impeached since this poll was taken in early December) would now be more admired by the public than he had been in previous years. But then Bill Clinton was also America’s most admired man for every year of his presidency. And Dubya weathered Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war to become America’s most admired man for the first seven years of his presidency. Only with the financial crisis of 2008 did he finally slip behind O.
In fact, before Trump, the last president to finish out of the top slot in the “most admired man” survey for more than one year of his presidency was Richard Nixon while drowning in Watergate. The man who finished ahead of him those years? Henry Kissinger. Hoo boy.
Obama topped Trump 22/15 in 2016, 17/14 in 2017, and 19/13 in 2018 before sliding into a tie this year. How come? Simple: Despite the media uproar about Ukraine and impeachment, Trump is more popular today than he’s been at most points in his presidency. On this date in 2017, he stood at a garish 39.8 percent approval in the RCP average. A year later he’d improved considerably to a bad-but-not-terrible 42.7 percent. Today’s he’s at 44.3, an Obama-esque number. On Earth 2, where the economy is roaring but Trump gave up Twitter on Inauguration Day, his approval’s well north of 50 and he just clinched his third “most admired man” honor in a row.
There’s an interesting trend in the data too. Two years ago Obama was most admired by 39 percent of Democrats, then by 35 percent of Dems last year. Trump was most admired by 35 percent of Republicans in 2017 and by 32 percent of GOPers last year. This year each is notably more popular within his own party, with O at 41 percent among Dems and Trump at 45 percent among Republicans. I can understand why Trump’s number is higher — it’s not just the economy but a partisan “circle the wagons” backlash to impeachment. What’s with Obama’s surge, though? He’s taken some (polite) heat for his policies from the party’s presidential candidates at the debates and the grassroots left has never been more vocal in complaining that the Obama era wasn’t nearly as progressive as they had hoped it would be. You would think admiration for him would be down. Maybe it’s up because the Dems’ 2020 crop seems underwhelming by comparison?
Presumably, as politics gets more partisan, every “admired” poll going forward will be a tie or near tie between the guy who’s currently in office and the guy from the other party who last held that office.
Here’s the list of previous winners dating back to 1946, by the way. Without fail, the most admired man is the president unless he’s in the middle of a crisis stemming from scandal, war, or economic hardship. Harry Truman lost to MacArthur a few times; LBJ slipped out of favor as Vietnam deepened; Nixon, as noted, lost the public amid Watergate; Carter stumbled during the “malaise” period; and, also as noted, Dubya finally relinquished the title to Obama after the 2008 recession. Trump’s first two years in office, which were dominated by the Russiagate probe, continued that trend. Now that the probe is over and Trump is unscathed, some Americans who were leery of him on “scandal” grounds may feel more free to admire him.
One last note, in Trump’s semi-defense: He finished second the last few years not just because he was unpopular but because Obama is unusually popular by the standards of ex-presidents. Gallup notes in its write-up that the only other former president to poll in double digits in admiration after leaving office was Dwight Eisenhower, who had to win a world war to earn that level of acclaim. Obama and Ike are also the only two men to be “most admired” during three different presidential administrations. Eisenhower did it in 1950, when Truman was in office, then every year of his own presidency, then again in 1967-68 as the public turned on Lyndon Johnson. Obama did it in 2008, the last year of Bush’s presidency, then every year of his own presidency, then the first two of Trump’s — or first three, I guess, since he’s tied for the lead here. Michelle Obama also happens to be the most admired woman this year and the only woman to crack double digits in the poll. (Melania Trump got five percent.) We’re coming up on 12 years now of the Obamas being the unquestioned favorites of America’s Democratic voters. That’s an amusing footnote to the legacy of a guy who got elected preaching change.