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Unpopular out of the gate, Trump making history one more time

Donald Trump will enter the White House next week as one of the most unpopular presidents in recent American history. And he will be pushing an agenda that most Americans don't support.

The latest numbers for Trump, beset this week by fresh reports of Russian efforts to boost his candidacy, are stark. A new poll from Gallup shows that just 44 percent of Americans approve of his presidential transition efforts while 51 percent disapprove. By contrast, 83 percent approved of President Barack Obama's transition in 2008. Even George W. Bush, who like Trump lost the popular vote, enjoyed a 61 percent approval rating of his transition as he prepared to enter the White House.

There is limited enthusiasm for Trump's Cabinet choices, with 52 percent saying they are average or better and 44 percent considering them below average or poor, according to Gallup. Only 10 percent viewed Obama's choices as average or poor.

A recent Pew survey found that 55 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Trump has done to explain his plans while 39 percent approve. The Pew poll said just 41 percent approve of Trump's Cabinet picks while 49 percent disapprove.

Trump himself has also seen his approval ratings slide again after a brief uptick following his surprise Electoral College win. A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed that just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president-elect to 51 percent who disapprove. The numbers are the reverse of Obama, who had a 55 percent approval rating in the poll.

Donald Trump
Lucas Jackson | Reuters
Donald Trump

Other readings for Trump in the poll also showed signs of serious trouble. A 53 percent majority said Trump is "not honest" and 62 percent that he is "not level-headed." On average, Trump has a 48.7 percent unfavorable rating among Americans to 42.7 percent favorable.

Trump's inauguration next Friday might improve these numbers if he can deliver a unifying speech and convince Americans that he has clear plans to spark economic growth and ease fears that he is a thin-skinned hot head prone to lashing out at even the slightest criticism. But major protests planned for the inaugural weekend could dampen some of these efforts and galvanize Trump's opposition.

Trump also faces a broader problem once he takes office. His priorities are not widely shared by the American public. A new poll conducted for Politico and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that the top three priorities for Trump voters are repealing and replacing Obamacare (85 percent), stopping future illegal immigration (78 percent) and major increases in defense spending (67 percent).

The numbers are much lower for the general public. Just 44 percent say repealing at replacing Obamacare should be a top priority while 38 percent say immigration and 43 percent say increased defense spending.

The most popularity priority for the general public at 49 percent — major government spending on infrastructure — is the least popular among Trump voters at 50 percent. There are also major differences on immigration in general. Fully 57 percent of Trump voters view undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. as a "very serious problem" compared with just 30 percent of the general public. The public at large is also much more inclined to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants than are Trump voters.

On taxes, the poll found that "a majority of both the general public and Trump voters oppose lowering taxes on big businesses and upper-income Americans. … Only 39 percent of Trump voters and 22 percent of the general public believe corporate taxes should be lowered. Only 18 percent of Trump voters and 13 percent of the public think taxes on upper-income Americans should be lower." Trump's initial agenda includes major tax cuts for both individuals and corporations.

Trump and the Republican Congress will also be on very dangerous ground making repeal of the Affordable Care Act — without an immediate replacement that ensures people are not deprived of existing coverage — their first agenda item.

For the moment, Trump's deep unpopularity does not appear to be a problem for him with the Republican Congress. The president-elect remains popular with an aggressive base that delivered him an Electoral College win even as he lost the popular vote by 3 million. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill live in fear of crossing Trump and angering his supporters.

That means the incoming president will get most or all of his Cabinet picks confirmed and will have a relatively free hand in passing his congressional agenda. But if Trump's approval rating sinks further, the president-elect could wind up ceding the agenda to Republicans on Capitol Hill, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Ryan and the rest of the GOP won't hesitate to move to protect their own political futures ahead of the 2018 midterm elections if it appears the occupant of the White House is dragging them down.

And should Trump wind up in significant trouble over his own business conflicts or his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Russians, he could wind up relying on a Republican Congress that views him as radioactive.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.