Americans give President Trump poor ratings in handling COVID-19 crisis

People wait in a line around the block for a pop-up food pantry amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S., April 17, 2020.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Since its peak in late March, public approval of President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has slowly but steadily declined. Why is this happening? Will his new guidelines to the states for reopening the country’s turn it around? What will be the impact of his latest tweets, which call on his supporters to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia from the mitigation measures imposed by their Democratic governors?

First the facts. Public opinion has gone through four distinct phases. Early on, when the threat seemed distant, the president enjoyed a solid edge in his handling of the issue. As late as the end of February, when the first U.S. death from COVID-19 was officially records, he enjoyed a net (approval minus disapproval) rating of +9.2 percentage points. But as public awareness swelled in the next two weeks, the public mood quickly shifted.

By the morning of March 13, Mr. Trump’s net rating had fallen to -5.6. Later that day, he declared a national emergency. This move helped shift public sentiment back in his favor. It peaked on March 25 at +3.5 percentage points. But during the ensuing three weeks, this trend reversed once more. As of April 17, the president’s net approval had fallen to -1.6.

Since the beginning of the crisis, moreover, public sentiment has hardened. At the end of February, only 85% had formed an opinion about the president’s handling of the issue. Today, 96% have done so.

Table 1

Approval Disapproval Net
February 29 47.2 38.0 +9.2
March 13 43.5 49.1 -5.6
March 25 49.7 46.2 +2.5
April 17 47.4 49.0 -1.6

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Two recent surveys shed light on the likely sources of President Trump’s most recent decline. The Greenberg/Quinlan/Rosner firm (GQR) asked Americans to select, from a list of 16 possibilities, the kinds of presidential conduct they regarded as most important during this health emergency. Table 2 displays the conduct the public ranks at the top.

Table 2

  Ranked first Among the top two Among the top three
Follow the advice of scientists and other experts 34 44 21
Communicates truthfully to the public 13 26 39
Acts quickly 13 23 32

Source: GQR

Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, this survey showed that the Americans who care the most about these characteristics give him poor ratings on all three. Just 32% of these Americans think that “following the advice of scientists” describes him well; 68% do not. Only 38% think that he communicates truthfully, and only 44% that he acts quickly.

It is possible, of course, that the sentiments of the Americans who care a lot about these actions diverge from the public at large. But data suggests that this is not the case. According to Pew 65% of all Americans, including 33% of Republicans, believe that President Trump was too slow in addressing the COVID-19 threat, and 57% believe that he is not providing the public with accurate information.

Pew asked its respondents to specify the kind of inaccuracy they found in the president’s public statement about COVID-19. Fifty-two percent, including 25% of Republicans, said that he was making the situation seem better than it really is, compared to just 8% who thought he was exaggerating the threat.

Mr. Trump has said that his role is to offer the people encouragement. But it seems that the people want a truth-teller, not a cheerleader.

With his announcement of a back-to-work plan on Thursday, President Trump is hoping to initiate a new phase of his response to COVID-19, in which he gets credit for an economic revival while shifting blame to governors who adopt a go-slow approach. This could work, but there are significant risks. According to Pew, 66% of Americans, including 51% of Republicans, are more worried that current restrictions will be lifted too quickly rather than too slowly, compared to 32% who are more worried about excessive delay. Only 26% of Americans believe that the worst of this crisis is behind us; 73%, including 56% of Republicans, believe that the worst is still to come.

For now, anyway, the protesters in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia are a small minority. If Mr. Trump speaks and acts as though they represent the sentiments of the American people, he may create confusion and end up adding another charge to the bill of particulars that the majority of the people have drawn up against him, and their evaluation of his handling of the crisis could fall much farther.