Only 35% of Americans think it's appropriate for a First Lady to have an official position in her husband's administration
First Lady Melania Trump remains far more popular than her husband – as she was in January, when the Economist/YouGov poll marked the first year of the Trump presidency with the finding that Mrs. Trump was the “Most Popular” Trump. Currently, unlike her husband, she maintains a favorable rating from the public – though, like her husband, she is more popular with men than with women and assessments are highly partisan.
In the last week, Trump has planned and hosted her first State Dinner, and attended (without her husband) the funeral of perhaps the most popular of recent First Ladies, Barbara Bush. In this poll, conducted after Bush’s recent death, 70% of Americans approved of how Bush handled her job as First Lady, the highest percentage given to any of the First Ladies the poll asked about. The same percentage had a favorable opinion of Bush. Only Jackie Kennedy matches Barbara Bush in favorability.
The further back in time, the more people who say they don’t have an opinion of a First Lady, though Kennedy and Roosevelt are well-remembered. For example, nearly half the public have no opinion of Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower.
There are risks for former First Ladies, and the case of Hillary Clinton demonstrates what can happen when a First Lady enters into the political world. She can make enemies, and Hillary Clinton did. Among all the First Ladies since Eleanor Roosevelt, Clinton is the only one now viewed unfavorably – and many look back on her time as First Lady in a negative light: alone of all the First Ladies in the poll, as many disapprove as approve of the way Clinton handled her job as First Lady.
Part of that negative assessment is undoubtedly the residue of her unsuccessful attempts to win the Presidency on her own as well as the sense that while First Ladies can take on “causes” and even take policy positions, they should not have an official position, as Hillary Clinton did heading Bill Clinton’s try at achieving health care reform.
Partisans agree on the first two questions, but there is party disagreement on the third. Hillary Clinton’s singular role in health care reform has no match to a Republican First Lady who did something similar during her husband’s terms in office.
Feelings about Clinton changed dramatically after her husband left the White House in 2001 (before she ran for President and served as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration). In January of that year, just before George W. Bush’s Inauguration, Clinton was extremely popular with both Democrats and Republicans. A January 2001 CBS News Poll gave her a 74% approval rating, with only 21% disapproving. In that same poll, Republicans approved 59% to 36%.
Since the Clinton Presidency, there has been increasing partisanship in how recent First Ladies are evaluated. From Eleanor Roosevelt through Barbara Bush, every First Lady in this poll is viewed positively by both Republicans and Democrats, whatever the party of the President. More recently, beginning with Hillary Clinton, (and with the exception of Laura Bush), each First Lady gets the approval of her handling of the job from her husband’s partisans, and not by those from the opposition party.
61% of Republicans disapprove of how Michelle Obama handled her role, and 81% of Republicans disapprove of Hillary Clinton’s performance as First Lady. Melania Trump certainly has taken more of what are seen as traditional First Lady responsibilities, but she still suffers from a partisan assessment. 51% of Democrats disapprove of how she is handling her job.
Another indication of recent change in how the public sees the most recent First Ladies is in the answers Americans give when asked which First Lady received the most negative media coverage while her husband was President. The most popular answers for both Republicans and Democrats are the two most recent Democratic First Ladies: Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. The most favorable coverage went a bit further back for one of the top two: Michelle Obama was most often cited, followed by Jackie Kennedy.