President Trump enjoys a historically strong job market, decent economic growth, relatively low gas prices, a surging stock market, fewer combat deaths of U.S. troops and fewer inmates in federal prisons.
All in all, he has a good story to tell voters, particularly when compared to his predecessors.
Yet as he enters his fourth year in office — a reelection year — his approval ratings trail those of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush at this point, and oddsmakers say he’s at best a 50-50 chance to win a second term.
It’s a riddle that bedevils the president’s advisers, and gives encouragement to his political opponents, who feel he’s poised to become only the second president in the last four decades to fail to win re-election.
For some, there’s an easy answer: He’s gotten a raw deal from a press unwilling to give him a fair shake.
“It is very difficult to overcome the constant attacks by the media on the president and the total discounting all this good news. It is really frustrating,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican. “I don’t blame the president for being frustrated. And I am frustrated too that we have done so much and neither he nor the Republicans in the Congress get any credit for it.”
Mr. Trump has ground to make up as he looks to Election Day.
He won in 2016 despite getting fewer votes nationwide, just as Mr. Bush did in 2000. But Mr. Bush went into 2004 in far better shape. At the three-year mark of his presidency, his approval rating was 58.5%, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls. That was a net 14.9% positive rating.
Mr. Obama won his first election by a significant margin, meaning he could lose some of his voters and still win re-election.
At this point in his presidency he had a 46% average approval rate, which was a net 2.3% negative.
A White House official conceded to The Times that Mr. Trump’s polarizing behavior takes a toll on those numbers.
“He’s a New Yorker, and that means by birth, by inclination, by action, by training, whatever, the other 300 million Americans that don’t live in New York are not going to like him,” the official said.
By contrast, people seemed to want to give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt. That was true even on the international stage, where he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by this point in his term.
The White House official put that in context, pointing out that Yasser Arafat, designated a terrorist, won the award in 1994.
The official said the peace prize was emblematic of the different treatment the previous presidents got compared to Mr. Trump.
“It’s not so much that the media’s against him, it’s that it’s a steady downpour. And no matter how many umbrellas you have, you’re still going to get wet,” the official said.
Just how good are Mr. Trump’s numbers?
Gas prices, adjusted for inflation, are only slightly higher than they were 20 years ago. The stock market is up more than 45%. The federal prison population, which three years into the Obama years was surging past 215,000, is down below 150,000 inmates. Mr. Trump is nearing 7 million more jobs.
The Federal Reserve does say that manufacturing has been weak, denting the president’s claim that he would revive that side of the economy. The Fed said the president’s tariffs are a reason for manufacturing’s weakness.
Income inequality is also up — though median household income has fully bounced back from the Great Recession, the Census Bureau said last year.
In decades past, the surging stock market and solid job gains would likely have meant another term for whichever party held the reins at the White House.
But The Economist says that link has been severed over the last decade, sending academics scrambling to rethink their models.
One of those academics is Alan I. Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who uses models to project elections.
In a column for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, he said last week that growing partisan polarization means voters, even if they’re enjoying better finances, are not automatically going to give the guy in the White House another go.
Besides, he said, Democrats don’t see the economy as positively as the rest of the country, and give Mr. Trump less credit for it.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who pondered taking on Mr. Trump himself but ultimately decided not to join the field of candidates, said that’s exactly how he sees it.
“I think he doesn’t have a good story to tell. I think it is an administration marked by corruption for himself and his family and friends,” he said.
“I would think papers like The Washington Times would be concerned about the deficit. But I know The Wall Street Journal and conservative media never care about the deficit if it is a Republican president and do if it is a Democratic president,” Mr. Brown said.
Rep. Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, said the economy looks good from the top down, but average Americans don’t necessarily feel the benefits.
“So there are a lot of complicated factors — I’m trying to be as fair as I can be — that go into this. I think that the American public opinion is very much in flux right now.”
Mr. Abramowitz said Mr. Trump can win re-election, and much depends on who his Democratic opponent will be.
But Mr. Trump’s record won’t help.
“The more the campaign and the election revolve around the president’s record and performance, the better the chance that he will be defeated,” he said.
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