- - Monday, October 3, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Regardless of who wins in November — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — the new president may soon regret it. While that verdict sounds harsh, key variables argue against the next chief executive’s success. Either candidate will likely find little personal or political capital, and an economy not bad enough to show easily perceived improvement and not good enough to provide positive momentum.

Four variables can greatly influence a president’s success: electoral mandate, personal popularity, political control of Congress, and the economy. Though hardly the only important factors, these are crucial and to some extent measurable. All show the next president could potentially be in serious trouble before taking office in January.

A president’s start is strongly influenced by the candidate’s finish, specifically: Did victory produce a “mandate”? Admittedly amorphous — invariably claimed by supporters and denied by opponents — a mandate can be estimated by popular vote percentage and victory margin.

According to Real Clear Politics’ average of national polling data, Mrs. Clinton stands at 43.4 percent, Mr. Trump at 40.9 percent, (Gary Johnson: 7.3 percent and Jill Stein: 2.4 percent). If November’s results followed this, and if all “Undecideds” broke for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump, neither would win a popular vote majority. Such an outcome is hardly fatal. Three of the last six elections produced plurality presidents — George W. Bush II in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 — and both won re-election. However, being a plurality president is also no badge of electoral strength.

Electoral strength can also be measured by victory margin. If current polling indicates the final margin, neither will be particularly strong. Mrs. Clinton’s current slim advantage would be the lowest margin since Bush II lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College — the next narrower margin being Jimmy Carter’s 1976 win over Gerald Ford.

Once in office, a president’s party representation in Congress has a large bearing on the ability to govern. Although the next Congress’ party totals are now unknown, it seems very likely that majorities in both bodies will be smaller than the majorities Republicans currently hold. Further, it is also very possible party control of Congress could be split.

Virtually any plausible result will put either candidate at the low end of recent alignments. Likely only George H.W. Bush, who faced large Democratic majorities in both bodies throughout his presidency, would have taken office with a worse party alignment in Congress.

There is also the factor of public popularity once in office. This can offset unfavorable congressional numbers for a president. Ronald Reagan benefited greatly from popular support and was able to construct working House majorities when conservative Democrats voted with Republicans. Conversely, a lack of such popularity hamstrung Mr. Carter, despite his party’s majorities.

The current two nominees fall at the low end of the popularity range thus far.

Measured by public favorability ratings, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump score well below either party’s recent nominees — winners and losers — at this stage of the campaign. Their low scores match levels unseen until well into recent presidents’ tenure, when they have begun to inevitably sink. Certainly, this could change post-election, but both candidates’ prolonged low favorability ratings do not bode well for a major rebound soon.

Finally, the economy can have a major impact on how a president performs. Fairly or unfairly, a president owns the economy — being rewarded or punished for its performance. Every president since Mr. Carter has experienced a year when the gross domestic product (GDP) shrank. Importantly, the economy a president inherits sets the standard for the measurement of future performance.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Bush I started with good economies, only to see them worsen toward the end of their four years — both lost re-election. Reagan, Mr. Bush II (with Sept. 11’s adverse effect), and President Obama started with bad economies but saw them improve. Bill Clinton started with the public’s perception that the economy was poor (though it had actually begun its recovery during the 1992 election year) and saw it improve throughout his presidency. All four won re-election.

The simple economic message for presidents: Beat expectations. That will not necessarily be easy for Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. The economy has been mediocre at best for some time. From 1946 to 2000, real GDP annual growth averaged 3.3 percent; from 2001 to 2015, its average was 1.8 percent and from 2009 to 2015, 1.5 percent. So it is stuck right in the middle — not so bad that the next president will get a pass on performance, and not so strong as to give the next president a tailwind going forward. In many respects, it is the worst of all possible worlds.

As recent past presidencies show, no one of these variables is predictive of a president’s success. However, having all four aimed against the winner hardly augurs well. As a result, the next president’s time in the White House may feel a lot like the long and tough campaign trail to get there.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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