Obama’s Slide: An Appraisal

Sep 4, 2009 11:10am

I’ve fielded a few questions this week on President Obama’s slide in approval, mainly prompted by two factors: Gallup polls that had him down to 50 percent, and an op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks declaring that he’s fallen farther, faster than any previous newly elected president in polling history.

The far/fast report is true, but one that calls out for context – and whose broader meaning to the Obama presidency is not at all clear. Also a bit up in the air is Obama’s rating itself – 50 percent in a Gallup poll this weekend, but 55 percent in another released just yesterday, and a bit inconsistent in other recent measurements as well.

In our own most recent ABC/Post poll, Aug. 17 – at almost exactly his seven-month mark – Obama had 57 percent approval. An NBC poll the same day had him at 51 percent. Both polls, though, had his disapproval at 40 percent. The difference was in the number of undecideds, which I hold to be a function of polling technique, not actual indecision.

Still, the different estimates we’ve seen lately do suggest a reappraisal of Obama in the midst of the current health care debate, the country’s continued deep economic crisis (underscored by today’s unemployment report), the war in Afghanistan and more – challenges to the president all covered in our mid-August analysis.

In any case, yes, Obama’s fall has been steeper than other newly elected presidents in data back to 1953, slightly so in our data, more so if you use polls that show him lower. At the same time, he started at a higher level than either of his two predecessors. So while Obama’s fallen farther, Bill Clinton went lower – under 50 percent in just four months, and all the way down to 45 percent approval in his first seven months. Obama surely would prefer his current rating, no matter that he’s fallen farther than Clinton in arriving here.

Brooks’ limitation to “newly elected presidents” is necessary, moreover, because Gerald Ford fell very much farther – down 33 points in his first seven months, from 71 percent to 38 percent. Truman fell 12 points in his first seven months, although he started out extraordinarily high. And other presidents have fallen farther, faster at other points in their presidencies – e.g., George H.W. Bush by 24 points in four months in 1991-92.

Sticking with start-of-term ratings, the average for a president at seven months is 63 percent approval (ranging from Ford’s 38 percent to John F. Kennedy’s 76), compared with our figure for Obama of 57 percent. (He looks worse, naturally, against lower estimates.) Most of the higher approvals for past presidents at this point occurred before the heightened period of partisanship that started in the early 1990s.

Job approval does matter; it’s the fundamental assessment of public views of a president’s performance, one that can either add to or detract from his persuasive power. But that leaves open the question of how much these historical comparisons really mean.

The challenge is that presidential approval is highly contextual – informed by the circumstances of the time, not by dates on the calendar. As I’ve noted before, the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession was Ronald Reagan, who fell from 73 percent approval in the first spring of his presidency to 48 percent by February. Obama’s got as bad or worse an economy; he’s taking on health care, which is full of pitfalls; and, again, it’s a highly partisan time.

What it means long-term also is unclear. Some presidents have started out better but ended up badly; others, the opposite. The one-termer first President Bush was at 73 percent approval at seven months; the one-termer Jimmy Carter, at 66 percent. Clinton’s tough start did not predict his long-term popularity. And the second President Bush was at 61 percent approval at seven months; he’s more apt to be remembered as running up the most unpopular second term on record.

All told, a president’s approval at seven months does correlate with his career average rating, albeit at an unprepossessing 0.34 (where 1 is a perfect positive correlation). There is something there – but also much elsewhere.

9/8 clarification: Data sources for the table below weren’t clearly identified. We used ABC/Post polls as available – for Reagan’s initial rating and from the first President Bush forward. We used Gallup data for Reagan’s seven-month rating, not having that data point ourselves; and Gallup for Carter and previous.

              Job Approval Ratings                    7-month          Initial   (appx.)  ChangeObama       68%      57       -11G.W. Bush   55       61         6Clinton     54       45        -9G.H.W. Bush 76       73        -3Reagan*     68       60        -8Carter      66       66         0Ford        71       38       -33Nixon       59       62         3Johnson     78       74        -4Kennedy     72       76         4Eisenhower  68       74         6Truman      87       75       -12


Average     69       63        -6

*Gallup: Reagan and earlier

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