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Trump isn’t benefiting from economic growth. But he’s not unusual.

- January 31, 2018

As President Trump begins his second year in office, observers have noted how unusual it is for a president to be unpopular in the face of a strong economy. Unemployment is low and the stock market is at record levels. And although a strong economy usually gives presidents a boost, Trump did not benefit from the favorable economic winds during his first year in office.

Our research shows, however, that in this respect, Trump is not unusual. To be sure, he is historically unpopular for a president at this point in his term. But the fact that economic growth did not translate into political support during his first year is fairly common — that relationship typically does not kick in until later in a president’s term.

Presidents often do not benefit from economic growth in their first year

We determined this by looking at the relationship between unemployment and presidential approval over the first 12 months of each presidency, going back to Harry S. Truman. If economic conditions give presidents a bump in their first year, we would expect to see unemployment rates and presidential approval move in tandem — when unemployment goes down, approval goes up (and vice versa).

But in fact, we find no consistent relationship. For some presidents — including Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and Truman — approval ratings during the first year moved in tandem with the unemployment rate. But we found the opposite pattern for others, including George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson. Trump is also in that category — his approval declined through 2017, even as the number of unemployed Americans also fell.

When we average across all 13 presidents, the correlation — a measure of how strongly two phenomena are connected — between unemployment and approval during the first year is virtually zero. Specifically, the correlation is -0.02, which basically means the two things are unrelated. (If we exclude Trump, it’s about the same, -0.08.)

The honeymoon effect means most presidents become less popular in Year 1

We think there are at least two reasons that presidents do not benefit from economic growth in their first year. The main reason is that the presidential “honeymoon” wears off, leading to a general decline in approval over the first year.

Of the 13 presidents from Truman to Trump, nine, including Trump, saw a decline in approval in their first year. For instance, Trump’s approval rating peaked during his first week in office and has not returned to that level.

A new president often comes into office with an energized base and, at least historically, a modicum of the goodwill offered to a new chief executive, but support for him wanes as he makes hard decisions and faces criticism. This decline is rarely smooth, but it is observable over the year.

Only John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush saw their popularity rise or remain steady during their first year. Those presidents were different in part because of foreign policy crises that prompted a “rally” in presidential popularity. The most dramatic example occurred in 2001, when George W. Bush’s approval surged from 55 percent in August to 90 percent in September after the 9/11 attacks.

The upshot is that when the more typical “honeymoon decay” in the first year coincides with an improving economy, that disrupts the typical relationship between economic conditions and presidential approval. This is exactly what has happened with many presidents, including Trump.

First-year presidents also operate in the shadow of their predecessors

First-year presidents are also less likely to get credit (or blame) for the economy in their first year than they are later in their term. That’s because at least a portion of the public typically holds the previous president responsible for economic conditions.

For example, Obama came into office in the midst of an economic crisis, one that began on George W. Bush’s watch. At the end of Obama’s first year, a Quinnipiac Poll showed that 55 percent of Americans blamed Bush for the state of the economy, while only 20 percent blamed Obama.

Over the course of Trump’s first year, Quinnipiac asked Americans who they believe is responsible for the condition of the economy. Throughout that time, the public consistently assigned responsibility to Obama over Trump. Even by January 2018, nearly a full year after Trump had assumed office, 49 percent said that Obama was more responsible for the economy, while just 40 percent said Trump was.

All of this suggests that presidents typically do not “own” the economy until they’ve been in office for more than a year, making Trump much less unusual than many observers have claimed. Presumably, Trump is hoping that 2018 is the year Americans will give him credit for the economy — unless, of course, it begins to go south.

Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation in the United States and abroad.

Helmut Norpoth is a professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University.  He is co-author of The American Voter Revisited (University of Michigan Press, 2008) and a forecaster of elections in the United States and abroad.