Baseball, the War on Terror, and Public Polling
President Donald Trump did something this week that he hasn’t done since he became commander in chief: he attended a major national sporting event. The nation’s chief executive showed up at game five of the World Series, in the nation’s capital, between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros. Perhaps sensing that he might receive a chilly reception among Washingtonians – he received only 4.1% of the vote in the District of Columbia in 2016 – the President brought several Republican congressmen and First Lady Melania Trump with him.
American presidents have a storied history with America’s pastime. According to a letter by an unnamed soldier, General George Washington threw and caught “a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp.” (The Baseball Almanac says Washington probably was playing an English game called Rounders, which eventually evolved into our modern form of baseball.)
President Teddy Roosevelt apparently did not like baseball, and – perhaps – President Trump feels the same after his reception at Sunday’s game.
Despite being decked out in a tie displaying the hometown Washington Nationals’ red, the Washington crowd didn’t much like the president’s presence. He was met with boos and chants of “lock him up.” (Switch the pronoun and that, of course, is the chant Trump supporters used for Hillary Clinton at 2016 campaign rallies.)
The president scowled in response.
While Nats fans’ reception probably is not surprising given Washington’s historical left-leaning electorate, it is notable because, not even 24 hours before the game, the commander in chief ordered and oversaw the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, by U.S. special forces.
It seems that even a fresh and significant military victory could not quell D.C. voters’ distaste for President Trump.
Sunday’s display is somewhat of a departure from how baseball fans have reacted at other important moments in U.S. political history. It also is a departure from how Americans have reacted to similar events since the inception of the war on terror.
Donald Trump’s World Series appearance came just three days shy of the 18th anniversary of President George Bush’s ceremonial first pitch at the 2001 World Series, when New York City, and the American people, rallied around the commander in chief in the wake of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. President Bush was cheered by the hometown Yankees fans even though he had won just 18.2 percent of the vote in New York City in the 2000 election.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt also was received warmly by baseball fans. In fact, even a court-packing scandal could not dampen Washington fans’ enthusiasm when FDR threw out the first pitch at the 1937 All-Star game. In 2018, Washington D.C.’s local NBC affiliate reported, “On his heels over his unpopular plan to ‘pack’ the U.S. Supreme Court with extra justices to overcome a court that had stymied some of his New Deal legislation, FDR found campaign-style adoration at the 1937 All-Star Game. Before the game, American League and National League stars lined a parade route on the field as the grinning president rode past, waving his hat to the fans from the back seat of a convertible. Later, he threw out the first pitch from his presidential box.”
To be sure, President Trump is not the only Oval Office occupant who has been booed by baseball fans. As The Washington Post explains, President Herbert Hoover attended the World Series in 1929, 1930 and 1931. In 1931, as the Great Depression enveloped the country, President Hoover endured “a resounding chorus of boos.” (Some fans, eager to see the end of Prohibition, reportedly also shouted, “We want beer!” when Hoover’s presence was announced to the crowd.)
President Harry Truman was booed on opening day in 1951. At the time, one journalist called it “the coldest reception ever given a Chief Executive at an opening baseball game.” What could have upset fans so much? As The Post explains, “The game was the president’s first public event after he removed Douglas MacArthur as commander of United Nations forces in Korea …” General MacArthur had appeared before a joint session of Congress the day before, saying “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
Forty-one years later, it was a former college baseball player who drew fans’ ire. President George H.W. Bush, who played for Yale as an undergraduate, was booed when he attended the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego. (Unlike the current commander in chief, President Bush kept smiling despite the treatment.) President Barack Obama also got a few boos at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis.
And Washington Nationals fans do have a history of bad behavior. In 2008, when President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Washington Nationals Park seven years after his New York City World Series debut, he was booed by fans.
What a difference seven years in office makes. As we can infer from his World Series reception, President Bush’s poll numbers soared in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.
They also improved two years later, when U.S. forces captured Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. According to a CBS News report at the time, “In CBS News/New York Times polling conducted December 10-13, the four days before the former Iraqi leader's arrest, Bush’s job approval rating was 52 percent. In the two days after U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein, the President’s overall approval rating rose modestly to 58 percent, with 33 percent disapproving. Bush's approval rating is his highest since last July.” In the end, President Bush’s approval ratings rose seven points in Gallup polling in the aftermath of Hussein’s capture.
The same trend was obvious eight years later, after another major victory over a terrorist.
According to The New York Times, President Obama’s approval ratings “rose sharply after the killing of Osama bin Laden, with a majority now approving of his overall job performance, as well as his handling of foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism …” CBS/Times surveys found the president’s approval rating rose 11 points, to 57 percent from 46 percent, from the weeks before to after bin Laden’s death. (Gallup’s polling also revealed an improvement, albeit a smaller six-point swing.)
We will have to wait a few more days for post-Baghdadi public opinion surveys to emerge, but if game five of the World Series was any indication, we do not expect much of an improvement. Neither do inside the Beltway analysts. On Tuesday morning, the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her chamber would vote on an impeachment resolution, the inside the Beltway newspaper Politico said, “It’s pretty notable how quickly the news has turned from Trump directing the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi back to impeachment.”
Yet one more reminder of just how…unique…a political climate we currently enjoy.