Why Melania Trump's popularity is on the rise

The latest poll finds that more than half of Americans approve of first lady Melania Trump, up from about a third just before her husband took office.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
First lady Melania Trump arrives to join her guests for an International Women's Day luncheon in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017.

President Trump’s approval ratings currently stand at 42 percent, according to Gallup. That’s well below the marks his predecessors were receiving during their first few months, and could bode poorly for his administration’s political future.

But these low ratings haven’t dragged down first lady Melania Trump. A CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday gives her a “favorable” rating of 52 percent, up from 36 percent before the inauguration.

“The jump in Melania Trump’s approval ratings has been credited to more Americans forming an opinion about the first lady,” wrote the International Business Times, with 23 percent of respondents claiming to have “no opinion” about Mrs. Trump before the inauguration, compared with 12 percent afterwards.

Trump isn’t the first presidential spouse to receive a post-inaugural bump in approval ratings. In 1993, Vanity Fair reported that Hillary Clinton saw her popularity rise from 46 percent in the December before her husband's inauguration to 57 percent during his first week in office.

But Mrs. Trump has shunned the limelight that Mrs. Clinton and her other predecessors held. In doing so, she may have kept public opinion of her high even as attitudes towards her husband sour.

In recent decades, first ladies have taken on a broader role in their husbands’ administrations. That same 1993 Vanity Fair article, published as Clinton was leading her husband’s task force on health-care reform, reported that 36 percent of Americans were worried that she would have “too large a role” in the White House.

Despite these concerns, Clinton went on to fight for healthcare reform and become an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. In doing so, she helped vastly expand the opportunities – and expectations – of the first lady. According to research from political scientist Lauren A. Wright, “First ladies have made more public remarks than vice presidents across the past three administrations.”

While some might welcome this shift, it has its downsides. It ties first ladies’ careers even more closely to their husbands’ electoral fortunes and policy priorities. Writing in The Washington Post last January, Dr. Wright described the first lady’s role as “an unpaid, unofficial government representative whose roles and influence are defined almost entirely in respect to her relationship with her husband.”

A broader role also comes with harsher criticism – including jokes comparing Clinton to the killer in the board game Clue, and racist taunts directed at Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Trump’s profile has been lower than that of previous first ladies. Since the inauguration, she’s remained with her son Barron in New York and gone as long as 12 days without a single public appearance.

The former model faced her share of criticism during the campaign, including descriptions as a “trophy spouse.”

And the new poll data don’t suggest that feminists and liberals are rallying around the first lady. While 58 percent of men view her favorably, only 46 percent of women do. Both Mrs. Obama and Laura Bush received higher marks from women, according to CNN. And 86 percent of Republicans view Mrs. Trump favorably, vs. 22 percent of Democrats – a much wider partisan split than her predecessors faced.

But for the moment, Mrs. Trump has bucked the sinking poll numbers and ever-growing criticism directed at her husband, suggesting that she may have successfully untethered herself from her husband in the public’s eye.

In doing so, Wright predicts, “she may lessen the burden placed on future presidential spouses, allowing them respite from some of the duties feminists have long lamented.”

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