KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Donald Trump is heading into office with the lowest approval ratings of an incoming president in decades. That's according to several polls that have been tracking public opinion ahead of the inauguration. But how much does that matter to what Trump will accomplish in office? We're going to try and sort that out with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's here now. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi - happy to be here.
MCEVERS: So where does President-elect Trump stand right now with the public?
LIASSON: He doesn't stand in a very high position. Quinnipiac put him at 37 percent approval rating. Gallup has him at 40. That's below his ballot. He got 46 percent of the vote. Usually presidents-elect get a higher approval rating than their ballot. There's a surge of goodwill. There's kind of a honeymoon period.
President Obama's approval rating at this point was 78 percent. Only 18 percent disapproved. Even George W. Bush, after that very contested election, was polling at 62 percent favorable, 36 percent unfavorable. So Donald Trump is an outlier on this measure.
MCEVERS: However, I mean one of the things we've seen again and again over the past year is that the usual political rules do not seem to apply to Donald Trump. I mean he certainly says so. Do these low approval ratings matter?
LIASSON: That's a very good question. We know that Donald Trump won the election even though 66 percent of Americans said he wasn't qualified to be president. So maybe one of his takeaways is that the normal rules of political gravity don't apply to him. It doesn't matter whether he has a high approval rating.
This could be one of the reasons why he has not made any effort to reach out to the 54 percent of Americans who didn't vote for him, why he's continued to pick fights either with John Lewis or the intelligence community or a local labor leader in Indiana. He's continued to be very divisive on Twitter. This worked for him during the campaign. Maybe he thinks this is going to work for him as president even though his transition team says that the theme of his inaugural address is going to be unity.
MCEVERS: What about in Congress? If Trump is seen as unpopular, will that hurt him as he tries to push his agenda on Capitol Hill?
LIASSON: Well, theoretically, but usually presidents, regardless of their approval rating, do get their first-year agenda through Congress, especially when they have control of both houses, as Donald Trump does. And remember; Barack Obama, who had a very high approval rating, didn't get any votes for his stimulus plan from the other side of the aisle.
So when you have an opposition party that's determined not to help you, you're going to have to pass things with your own party. And right now, I think that Donald Trump won't have a lot of problems doing that even though there are big differences between him and Republicans in Congress on things like the Obamacare replacement plan, tax policy or whether the government should be able to negotiate prices with the drug companies for Medicare.
MCEVERS: Will Donald Trump need Democratic votes for some things?
LIASSON: Yes, he certainly will. There are a lot of things he can pass with 51 votes, which he has obviously in the Senate. There are some other things that he'll need 60 votes for, and he will need Democrats for that. And the big question is, can he get those Democratic votes? What kind of outreach will he do? And is he willing to go against the wishes of some in his own party on an infrastructure plan, for instance, or on entitlement reform, which is something that he doesn't want to do? His party does. So those are questions that remain to be answered.
But one thing we should say is even though Donald Trump has a historically low approval rating, he is coming into office at a time when his party is more dominant than any party has been in a very long time. Not only do Republicans have both houses of Congress and the White House in Washington. They are in a dominant position in state after state after state all over the country.
MCEVERS: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you.
MCEVERS: By the way, Trump tweeted today about his approval numbers. Trump said it was, quote, "the same people who did the phony election polls and were so wrong." Trump also claimed without any evidence those polls are rigged. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.