President Donald Trump leaves the White House next month with the country more sharply divided than when he moved in and amid caustic assessments of his record in office, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.
Fifty percent of Americans now predict history will judge him as a "failed" president.
The survey, taken in the waning weeks of his administration, shows the risks of actions he is contemplating on his way out the door. Americans overwhelmingly say issuing a preemptive pardon for himself would be an abuse of presidential power, and an even bigger majority, including most Republicans, say he should attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration to demonstrate the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump hasn't announced whether he will attend the inauguration Jan. 20, and White House officials say he has been weighing pardons for himself and family members. On Tuesday, he issued 20 politically charged pardons and commutations, with more expected to follow. Much of his energy since the Nov. 3 election has been spent seeking ways to overturn the results, making allegations of widespread fraud.
"The last four years have been lacking in compassion and empathy, lacking in anything other than advancing the personal interests of President Trump and his friends and allies and family," said Babette Salus, 60, a retired attorney and Biden voter from Springfield, Illinois, who was among those surveyed. "There have probably been worse presidents, (but) I'm not sure there has been a worse one in my lifetime."
The poll of 1,000 registered voters Dec. 16-20 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Asked how history would judge Trump's presidency, 16% predict he will be seen as a great president, 13% as a good president, 16% as a fair president, and 50% as a failed president. Five percent are undecided.
"I'll tell you what, 50 years out, Trump will be much better regarded than he is at the current time," said David Cheff, 73, a Trump voter from Jacksonville, Florida. With the passage of time, he said, "Trump will look decent, for sure."
"He had half the people loving him and half the people wanting him dead," said Arsh Ganjoo, 19, a Biden voter from Great Falls, Virginia, who is a sophomore at the University of Texas. "I think he will be definitely taught in history classes and regarded as more of an anomaly rather than, you know, a great president."
Trump's ratings are more sharply negative than the ones Barack Obama, himself a controversial president, received when he left office four years ago. Then, a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll found that half of Americans predicted history would view Obama in a positive light, with 18% calling him a great president and 32% a good one. Twenty-three percent called him a failed president.
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Trump continues to hold a powerful position among Republicans, however.
While Americans by an overwhelming 70%-26% say it is time for Trump to concede the election now that the Electoral College has voted, Republicans by double digits, 57%-37%, say he shouldn't.
Indeed, most Republicans are ready to vote for Trump again. If he is the party's nominee in 2024, 71% of Republicans say they would support him, and another 16% say they would consider it. Just 10% say they wouldn't.
That gives Trump the standing to dominate the GOP's direction in a way no losing presidential nominee has done in modern times.
But Republicans aren't convinced Trump, in the end, will run again. While 48% predict he will be the party's nominee in four years, 35% say he won't.
Losing in court but persuasive to some
Trump's attacks on the election have failed in court but succeeded in sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Biden's presidency, even though Republican and Democratic officials alike in battleground states have declared that the election was conducted fairly and honestly.
By 62%-37%, Americans believe Biden was legitimately elected president. The fact that more than a third of the electorate – including 78% of Republicans – say he didn't legitimately win the office looms as a significant political hurdle, particularly for a president who will take office during a deadly pandemic and an economy in upheaval.
"Never ever, ever happened," Allen Matthews, 42, a tech engineer and a political independent from Lone Tree, Colorado, said of Biden's election. He repeated unfounded allegations, promoted by Trump but debunked by independent fact-checkers, that Biden was recorded as scoring nearly 100% of the vote in some battleground counties. "There's absolutely no way that's possible," he said. "So, no, I don't believe it was legitimate at all."
In some ways, Biden's standing has improved since his election. By 20 points, 51%-31%, those surveyed approve of the job he has done since the election. His favorable-unfavorable rating is now a net 10 points positive, 49%-39%. In comparison, Trump's is 15 points negative, 40%-55%.
"It's definitely time to try something else," said Dalton King, 23, an oil field electrician from Loveland, Colorado, who voted for libertarian Jo Jorgensen for president. "There's a lot of things that personally worry me, but what we're doing now obviously isn't working, so hopefully these new ideas and these new programs, whatever they come up with, will work out to the best."
The coronavirus and its repercussions should top Biden's agenda, voters say: 44% say his first focus should be controlling the spread of COVID-19. Another 26% say it should be creating and preserving jobs. Improving access to health care ranks third, at 12%.
No other issue breaks into double digits.
"I would like to have some hope," said Susan Sadule, 59, a retiree from Easton, Pennsylvania, who voted for Biden. "We are still suffering the isolation, feelings of loneliness and depression, obviously, and I'm just filled on a daily basis with the sadness for all of the deaths" from the pandemic. She appreciates Biden's bipartisan approach but worries it won't work, given the capital's divide.
"I like his temperament in that he wants to get along," she said, but added that "it might be foolhardy unless there's a change in the leadership in the Senate."
By 66%-27%, those surveyed predict Biden will significantly dismantle Trump's legacy, a view held across party lines. (The finding was similar to the expectation in 2016, 59%-30%, that Trump would dismantle Obama's legacy.)
Views of the wisdom of doing that weren't bipartisan, though. Among Democrats, 79% said dismantling Trump's legacy would be "a good thing," while 72% of Republicans said it would be "a bad thing." Still, nearly 1 in 5 Republicans, 18%, said it would be "a good thing."
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Ranking Trump's achievements and failures
Americans rank Trump's economic record as his greatest achievement in office by far.
Nearly half of Republicans call the economy his greatest achievement, followed by foreign policy and his leadership in general. Among Democrats, half replied "none" when asked about Trump's top achievement; economic policy was second, cited by 22%.
Trump's leadership, in general, is his greatest failure, according to those surveyed, followed closely by his record on race relations. Republicans say his failure to "drain the swamp" in Washington is their biggest disappointment.
There is concern about some of the steps the president is now contemplating.
By 66%-24%, Americans say he should attend the inauguration of his successor next month. There is little partisan differences on that question: 65% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say he should attend.
By 62%-25%, those surveyed say it would be an abuse of a president's powers if Trump issues a preemptive pardon for himself. But most Republicans, 56%-24%, say it would be an appropriate use of his power.
By 58%-29%, respondents say it would be an abuse of his power to issue a significant number of pardons for his children, top aides and others.
When Trump took office four years ago, 59% told the USA TODAY poll that the country's divisions were deeper than they had been in the past. That view has only intensified. Now, 67% say the divisions have gotten deeper. It's a view held by overwhelming majorities across party lines.
As for Biden's task ahead, "I think the No. 1 thing he needs to be able to do is unite Americans to move forward," said Salus, the retired attorney from Illinois. "I think if he does that, everything else would probably fall in place OK."
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