If you haven’t noticed, President Trump is a high-risk/high-reward president. This means he selects big challenges, with potentially out sized rewards, but the process takes longer, requires front-end personal and political investment, and losing is entirely possible. Pollsters, and some Americans, find this hard to understand. Accordingly, polls are increasingly suspect.
Trump likes big challenges? Yes, like running for president, passing those Reagan-era tax cuts, rolling back Obama-care mandates and penalties, remaking NAFTA to serve US interests, asking Europe to pay more for their own defense, calling China out for unfair trade (levying tariffs for a deal), and sitting down with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un – to promote historic denuclearization.
Objectively, President Trump’s track record is solid – although a China deal is probably months away, and North Korean denuclearization years off, if ever. The US economy continues to post extraordinary growth, unemployment at an all-time low, productivity and wage growth rising, inflation in check. No one predicted those developments, even polled economists.
Leading polls also gave little chance for meaningful tax cuts in 2017, but President Trump got them. His “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” reduced individual tax rates, doubled standard deductions, dropped corporate taxes from 35 to 21 percent, and managed to reduce the drag of Obamacare.
How, you may ask? In big ways that were hardly reported. Trump eliminated the “Obamacare Individual Mandate Tax” on eight million Americans, dropped employer tax mandates, ended the Obamacare “medicine cabinet tax” which clipped 20 million Americans with Health Saving Accounts (HSAs), and 30 million with flexible spending accounts. That’s right.
Additionally, the Trump Tax bill ended $20 billion in taxes on flexible spending accounts, $125 billion in taxes on out-of-pocket medical expenses, and $100 million in taxes that Obama-Pelosi-Schumer had put on Health Saving Account withdrawals.
Trump ended Obama’s “health insurance tax,” abolished a 3.8 percent surcharge on investment income, nixed Obamacare’s taxes on medical devices, prescription medicines, and –unconscionable – the Obamacare tax on “retiree prescription drug coverage.” Trump ended them.
You did not read about all that? Well, it all happened, and we are the beneficiaries. Never mind why we did not hear about it, how did it happen? This is a high-risk/high reward president. He made a promise, held firm. Same is true on issues from Defense and Homeland Security to State and creating transparency in drug and hospital pricing.
The real kicker? Little of this shows up in polls. Polls reflect prevailing news content, which – no surprise – is overwhelmingly anti-Trump, leading networks producing confusing news with opinion. Consistent partisanship by national media is new, but surprises may hide in Trump’s poll numbers.
First, just as in 2016, there is no way to assess popular disapproval of media partisanship. Some viewers are influenced to be anti-Trump. Others strongly resent media partisanship, particularly masquerading as news. Many voters in 2016 held opinions close, closer than pollsters realized – even dodging public discourse, but later cast votes for Trump-Pence.
Second, actual numbers are interesting. Conservative outlets worry about President Trump’s March Gallop Poll rating of 39 percent approval, a slip from 43 percent in February. But context is important. Context suggests that President Trump is in a better position than many credit.
Notably, his 39 percent approval comes in the face of a headwind. The vocal Democrat House has promoted heightened rhetoric on impeachment (not going to happen), partisan congressional oversight investigations, and constant talk of the Mueller Russia inquiry. Separately, Trump has not yet scored a China accord or new steps with North Korea. Add media hype over congressional testimony by Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, and you get a real headwind.
But historical comparisons are illuminating. President Clinton’s lowest approval was 37 percent, President Obama’s 38 percent, and George W. Bush’s (three times) 25 percent. President Trump’s lowest is 35 percent, and he now oscillates between 43 and 39 percent. So, in historical context, these numbers may be average, above average, or meaningless.
Net take-away is this: America and our collective sentiment is no longer readily and accurately assessed by anonymous pollsters. The country is divided, subdivided again within major political parties. Polls miss the mark because average Americans trust less in a society where speech is chilled – and political speech often punished.
Truth is, like him or not, President Trump is authentic – perhaps too loose, candid, and unguarded in thoughts and tweets, but he is what he is. In a world of mirrors, recrimination, assumed discrimination, and instant outrage; in a time of deliberate misinterpretation, hostile accusation, and a culture of communal victimhood; in a day of disrespect for traditional freedoms like religion, speech, association and reference to history, this president is unmoved.
Trump’s high-risk/high-reward brand of politics attracts some, infuriates others – but creates a degree of connection, deliberate ambiguity, and success that makes polling a flimsy guide to the future. Some find this unsettling, incorrigible, and irritating; others find it refreshing, reassuring, and even delightful. Take your pick.