A debate’s alight on why disapproval of Barack Obama has become so unusually strong. The answer: It hasn’t. Three of the last four presidents have seen this level of strong unpopularity – one of them faster; another, far deeper.
After eight months in office, 31 percent of Americans in the latest ABC/Post poll strongly disapprove of Obama’s performance as president. Bill Clinton reached the same level of strong disapproval in five months. And while it took George W. Bush longer to get there, he traveled much farther into strong disapproval, and languished there for years.
Nor is Obama’s strong disapproval proportionately worse than the levels seen by his immediate predecessor. At its peak, 81 percent of people who disapproved of Bush felt strongly about it. On average across his second term, 77 percent of Bush’s disapproval was strongly felt; on average across his presidency, 69 percent. For Obama it’s currently 72 percent.
Part of the recent discussion has touched upon Obama’s position as the first African-American president; former President Jimmy Carter went there yesterday, saying: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”
Our pre-election polling did find a significant chunk of the country both racially insensitive and ill-disposed to Obama. But we also found another, significant group that looked well-disposed to Obama on racial grounds. And he was, of course, elected, with about the same share of support from whites as is customary for a Democratic presidential candidate. (Though it’s fair to wonder, as I did here, why he didn’t do better.)
Also note that at his peak in April 62 percent of whites approved of Obama’s job performance, and in January 76 percent expressed a personally favorable opinion of him. It’s hard to see how those who’ve since changed their minds may be racially motivated now, but weren’t then.
The tone of criticism is another matter, and one that’s hard to measure. But in a CNN poll, 85 percent called it inappropriate for Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., to have shouted, “You lie!” during Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last week. That hardly seems an endorsement of this sort of invective.
As the July incident involving Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. underscored, racial sensitivities remain a real issue in this country, and as we’ve reported separately, blacks’ experience of racial discrimination is widespread.
But there are other factors. One is the increasingly ideological nature of political partisanship in the last 20 or so years, with the polarization that produces. Moreover, there’s abundant evidence that views of the president are informed by his work on specific issues – above all the dreadful economy, but also the huge deficit, doubts about the war in Afghanistan and the contentious health care debate. As he’s taken ownership of these, his popularity has declined, precisely as one would expect.
I continue to say the best analogy is to the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession: Ronald Reagan declined from a peak of 73 percent approval not long after the start of his first term to 48 percent a year later. Obama’s direction is the same; 9.7 percent unemployment will do that.
Indeed the economy continued to stumble through the first half of Reagan’s first term, to the point where, with unemployment peaking at 10.8 percent in December 1982, 31 percent of Americans strongly disapproved of his job performance – precisely the same as Obama’s strong disapproval today.
This week’s anniversary of the global financial meltdown makes the point worth keeping in mind. In the midst of the heated health care debate, shouted comments from the floor of the House and the ever-present subject of race, it’s another factor that’s likeliest by far to spell Obama’s future: The course of the nation’s economy.