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The Upside to an Unpopular President

October 21, 2016

Article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


No matter who wins the White House on Nov. 8, a majority of the country will dislike the next president. Polling this week from Gallup shows that 56% of Americans view Hillary Clinton unfavorably, and 68% view Donald Trump unfavorably. These are record numbers for presidential candidates.But from the ashes of this ugly, bitter campaign comes a terrific opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. Because President Clinton or President Trump will be so unpopular from day one, he or she will have a strong incentive to compromise. Pursuing a partisan agenda that creates gridlock in Washington, and bitter debates that threaten to shut down the government, will only make the new president more disliked—and re-election in 2020 a long shot.Incoming White House advisers will know this. Every newly elected president appoints staff and develops a policy agenda of what the administration will try to accomplish over its first term. This substantive plan is synchronized with the political plan to get re-elected in four years. Even if the president does not have the next campaign in mind, the senior staff and outside political advisers do.

There’s only one way that either of these politically crippled leaders will get anything done as president: lead an unprecedented era of bipartisan compromise between Congress and the White House. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are experienced negotiators. Neither is an ideologue, willing to fall on his or her sword for a philosophical cause.

History tells us that bipartisan compromise is how big issues get solved in Washington. President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neillsaved Social Security. President George H.W. Bush reached a budget deal with Democratic leaders. President Clinton worked with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Speaker Newt Gingrich to balance the budget, reform welfare and fight crime.Today’s challenges include reducing the budget deficit, reforming the tax code, repairing America’s infrastructure, rebuilding the military, fixing the immigration system, and maybe even shoring up entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.A single party working alone cannot address these issues. The election might result in divided government, with President Clinton facing a Republican House, or President Trump a Democratic Senate. But even assuming a one-party sweep, the Senate’s filibuster rules mean that significant legislation must pass with 60 votes—and support on both sides of the aisle.The good news is that Speaker Paul Ryan is eager to negotiate to solve big problems. So are Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, one of whom will be the next Senate Majority Leader. None of these leaders enjoys Congress’s terrible reputation for inaction. This view is shared by the broad mainstream of both parties.Although the House Freedom Caucus counts a few dozen hard-line conservatives among its members, congressional leaders do not need the extremists in either party to pass legislation. Hard work and serious negotiation will produce bills that a majority of Republicans and Democrats can support.By pursuing bipartisanship, the new president might alienate some of the purists among his or her supporters. But the president will have nothing to fear from the voters at large. Most of the country craves a leader who will seek and achieve political unity to solve problems. In a September poll from Quinnipiac University, 76% of likely voters said it was “very important” that the next president unite the nation. That includes strong majorities of every group polled: 79% of Republicans, 77% of Democrats and 74% of independents; 68% of men and 82% of women; 76% of whites and 77% of nonwhites; 82% of seniors and 69% of millennials.

Bipartisan compromise on big issues promotes a feeling of unity and gives Americans the sense that government is working. Achieving this might provide the new president’s only realistic shot at a second term. And the kicker is that it is the right thing to do for the country. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump aren’t popular, and there’s only one way to win over Americans: By reaching across the aisle to fix the country’s problems.

Mr. Black is chairman of the Prime Policy Group and a vice chairman of No Labels.

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