Don’t expect Thursday’s airstrike on Syria to move the dial on President Donald Trump’s historically low approval ratings — not for now, at least. Recent history suggests that any “rally ‘round the flag” effect on Trump’s popularity is contingent on what comes next.
The extent to which the president can benefit politically from his decision to use military force will likely depend on a number of factors — none of which are clear in the aftermath of firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian military airbase believed to have launched the aircraft that carried out this week’s chemical weapons attack.
The degree of U.S. involvement in Syria, the breadth of Democratic support and depth of opposition to Trump’s eventual actions — all of it will shape and color public perceptions of the president’s performance. But regardless of what happens, even a large-scale shift in views of Trump is unlikely to be lasting.
In Trump’s case, he begins with more baggage than his recent predecessors, a consequence of his past public statements and the bitter polarization surrounding his presidency. As of late Friday, Trump’s average approval rating stood at 40 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, down from 45 percent a month ago.
Modern polling history is replete with examples of military actions and other foreign-affairs events that did, and did not, change the public’s perception of the commander-in-chief. Barack Obama’s administration rescued a cargo shipping captain from pirates off the African coast and toppled Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, but the president’s poll numbers stayed stagnant. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 led to a month-long bounce for Obama, but he quickly returned to his previous position.
“Any rallying effect from this sort of engagement is typically short-lived,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “Obviously recall [George H.W. Bush] won a major war in the Mideast and went on to lose reelection shortly thereafter. Even [George W. Bush] after 9/11 had a very competitive reelection four years later.”
Back in 2001, the younger Bush’s approval rating surged 35 points after the Sept. 11 terror attacks — the largest bounce Gallup has ever measured. He got a 13-point bump following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For Bill Clinton, one of his poll bounces — in December 1998 — coincided with a four-day-long bombing campaign in Iraq. But that occurred as the House of Representatives was moving to impeach Clinton, making it impossible to distinguish to which event Americans were reacting.
Clinton did not get a discernible poll bounce following another high-profile military action: the Aug. 1998 bombing of al Qaeda-linked targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to two separate double-digit bumps for George H.W. Bush, according to Gallup: He gained 14 points in approval after the Aug. 1990 invasion of Kuwait, then 18 points when the U.S. launched military action in Jan. 1991. But, notably, Bush’s approval rating when he ordered the start of Operation Desert Storm (64 percent) wasn’t much higher than before the Iraqi invasion (60 percent), meaning his initial bounce had mostly receded by the time the U.S. took action.
Other smaller-scale military actions resulted in either modest or short-lived changes in perceptions of the president. Ronald Reagan never got a sudden, double-digit bounce in Gallup polling — the 1983 invasion of Grenada didn’t move the needle much on his poll numbers.
Gerald Ford got a 11-point bounce in May 1975 after Marines recovered the S.S. Mayaguez, a U.S. container ship that had been seized by the Khmer Rouge, off the coast of Cambodia. Ford had been damaged by Watergate and his pardon of Richard Nixon, holding only a 40-percent approval rating going into the Mayaguez incident.
That is also where Trump begins, with a majority of Americans disapproving of his job performance. The lack of a Trump honeymoon is indicative of the unusually low opinions many Americans held of the new president during last year’s campaign, and also of an agenda over the first 11 weeks that has stoked partisan fires and controversy — particularly over immigration, health care and the nation’s next Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch.
Reaction to Trump’s actions on Thursday night has been generally positive — particularly on Capitol Hill among members of both parties. Any escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria beyond the bombing, however, could divide lawmakers along partisan lines — and lead to a similarly polarized response from the public at large.
The first polls on Trump and his actions in Syria should be available early next week. But the general idea that military action could boost a president’s political standing is not a foreign concept to Trump.
Back on Oct. 9, 2012 — as Mitt Romney closed in on Obama following their first general-election debate — Trump mused that Obama could seek to exploit his role as commander-in-chief to improve his reelection odds.
“Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin — watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran,” Trump posted on Twitter. “He is desperate.”