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Americans Expect History to Judge Trump Harshly

Americans Expect History to Judge Trump Harshly

Story Highlights

  • Majority think Trump will go down as a poor or below average president
  • Kennedy rated best; Obama, Reagan also rated positively
  • Evaluations of Obama, George W. Bush improved since they left office

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Six in 10 Americans believe that history will regard President Donald Trump negatively, including 47% who say he will be remembered for doing a "poor" job. In contrast, fewer than three in 10 think he will be remembered as an "outstanding" (9%) or "above average" (20%) president. Relatively few, 10%, believe he will go down in history as an "average" president.

Views of Trump's legacy are highly partisan, with most Republicans (72%) thinking he will be remembered as above average or better and an even larger majority of Democrats (95%) predicting he will be regarded as below average or worse. Independents' views tip the balance of public predictions further against Trump, with 63% thinking he will be remembered negatively versus 24% positively.

Americans Believe President Trump Will Not Be Rated Positively in History
How do you think each of the following presidents will go down in history -- as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average or poor? [Donald Trump]
  Outstanding Above average Average Below average Poor
  % % % % %
U.S. adults 9 20 10 14 47
Republicans 23 49 14 6 8
Independents 6 18 12 20 43
Democrats <1 2 3 13 82
Gallup, Jan. 4-15, 2021

Republicans' positive ratings are muted, with many more Republicans saying Trump will be viewed as an above average president (49%) rather than an outstanding one (23%). Meanwhile, Democrats' negative opinions are overwhelmingly harsh -- 82% say history will judge Trump as a poor president, while 13% say below average. Independents are more than twice as likely to believe Trump will be judged as a poor rather than a below average president.

The Jan. 4-15 Gallup poll asked Americans to predict how Trump and eight other recent U.S. presidents will go down in history. These include the last seven presidents as well as Richard Nixon, typically the poorest rated, and John Kennedy, typically the highest rated.

Kennedy continues to be rated highest overall, with seven in 10 regarding him as an outstanding or above average president. Majorities say the same about Barack Obama (56%) and Ronald Reagan (52%).

Trump has the most polarized image of all presidents, with most Americans either predicting he will be remembered well or poorly, rather than average. This contrasts with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, whose positive ratings are similar to those of Trump but who have much lower negative ratings than Trump. For the most part, Americans regard those three former presidents as being average.

Trump and Nixon are the only presidents garnering majority negative ratings. But Trump gets far more "poor" than "below average" ratings, while Nixon's negative ratings are evenly split between below average (29%) and poor (30%). Nixon receives relatively few positive ratings --11% -- so his "net positive score" is worse than Trump's.

Americans' Ratings of How Presidents Will Go Down in History
Ranked by net positive score
  Outstanding Above average Average Below average Poor Net positive
  % % % % % pct. pts.
Kennedy 23 47 25 2 1 +67
Reagan 17 35 30 10 6 +36
Obama 21 35 22 11 12 +33
G.H.W. Bush 7 21 53 11 6 +11
Clinton 10 26 37 16 11 +9
Carter 6 21 43 14 10 +3
G.W. Bush 6 18 49 16 10 -2
Trump 9 20 10 14 47 -32
Nixon 4 7 26 29 30 -48
Net positive is the percentage "outstanding/above average" minus the percentage "below average/poor"
Gallup, Jan. 4-15, 2021

As would be expected, Republicans rate the former GOP presidents -- Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trump -- more positively than Democrats do, while Democrats evaluate the former Democratic presidents -- Obama, Bill Clinton, Carter and Kennedy -- more charitably. Ratings of each president by party are available in the linked PDF file near the bottom of the article.

Obama, George W. Bush Ratings Improved

Gallup last asked Americans to put presidents in historical perspective at the time of the Obama-Trump presidential transition in 2017. Since then, Americans' opinions of how Obama will be remembered have improved significantly, with a nine-percentage-point increase in positive evaluations and a 12-point decrease in negative evaluations. Both recent measures were much better than those taken during Obama's presidency, in 2012 and 2013.

Line graph. Americans' ratings of how Barack Obama will go down in history have improved. In 2012, Americans were about as likely to say he would be judged an outstanding or above average president as a below average or poor one. In 2013, 40% thought he would be judged negatively and 28% positively. When he left office, that shifted to a net positive evaluation, 47% to 35%, and has improved to 56% positive and 23% negative this year.

George W. Bush is also rated better now than he was in the past. His current ratings are about equally positive (24%) and negative (26%) -- but previously, Americans were decidedly more critical in their assessments. In fact, a majority of 59% thought Bush would be remembered as a below average or poor president when he departed the White House in 2009, with only 17% thinking history would look favorably on him. The changes in Americans' ratings of Bush in recent years are primarily due to a reduction in negative ratings (shifting to "average") rather than an increase in positive ratings.

Line graph. Americans' ratings of how George W. Bush will go down in history have improved, moving from 59% negative and 17% positive when he left office in 2009, to 41% negative and 22% positive four years ago, to 26% negative and 24% positive this year.

While Obama and Bush are rated better than they were four years ago, Clinton is rated less positively. Thirty-six percent regard Clinton as an outstanding or above average president, down seven points from 2017, while the 27% rating him as below average or poor is up four points.

Line graph. Americans' ratings of how Bill Clinton will go down in history have gotten worse this year, with 36% believing he will be remembered as an outstanding or above average president and 27% as a below average or poor one. That compares with a 43% positive and 20% negative score in 2017, and a 50% positive and 20% negative score in 2009.

Since 2017, positive ratings of Kennedy and Reagan have dipped (by nine points and 11 points, respectively), with most of these shifts accompanied by an increase in the percentage of Americans rating each as average. Evaluations of George H.W. Bush, Carter and Nixon have not changed to a meaningful degree in the past four years.

Though Carter's ratings have been stable since 2017, he -- like George W. Bush -- is rated much better now than at the end of his presidency. A December 1980 Gallup poll found 14% of Americans thinking Carter would go down as an outstanding or above average president and 46% saying he would be remembered as a below average or poor one. Those negative evaluations persisted in the 1981 and 1993 updates. Now, Carter gets roughly equal positive and negative ratings.

Bottom Line

Americans think history will judge Trump harshly for his time in office, though Republicans tend to think he will be remembered as at least an "above average" if not an outstanding president. Trump and his supporters can take comfort in the historical pattern by which some former presidents' initial post-presidency ratings are not indicative of how the public thinks of them as time goes by. George W. Bush and Carter were rated much more negatively than positively when they left office, but 12 years and four decades after they, respectively, left office, Americans tend to think of both as average presidents if not good ones.

Neither Bush nor Carter, though, received the same degree of "poor" ratings as Trump gets, though neither got as many positive ratings as he did at the time.

Gallup did not measure perceptions of Nixon until 1999, and opinions of him have gotten worse since then (22% positive, 41% negative). Thus, it is also possible that Trump's perceived historical positioning will worsen as his presidency retreats into the past.

Explore President Trump's approval ratings and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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