In Race and Politics, Context Helps

Jan 26, 2010 3:29pm

With his first State of the Union address looming, dissections of President Obama’s approval ratings are in full force – with some analyses in need of context. The often vexed question of race is a prime example. It’s been reported that Obama’s approval rating among whites is the lowest at one year in polling data back to Ronald Reagan. True enough – but is this about race, or other factors – namely the condition of the economy and the force of political predispositions? To a large degree, I’d suggest the latter. A first point is that the one-year mark is artificial; presidential approval depends upon conditions and events as they occur, not dates on the calendar. Obama’s got just 44 percent approval from whites now, but his predecessor, George W. Bush, averaged 10 points lower among whites in all of 2008, falling as low as 28 percent approval among whites that October. Now consider Reagan. He was the last president to rate this low at one year, for the same reason Obama’s there today – both took office in dreadful economic conditions. Reagan did do better among whites than Obama does today, but this chiefly is for another reason: political allegiance. Then, as now, nine in 10 Republicans were white. Whites consistently have been more likely to favor Republican presidents, just as non-whites are far more apt to identify with the Democratic Party and to approve of its presidents. Indeed the difference for Obama compared with previous presidents is not an unusual level of antipathy among whites (for a Democrat), but rather his level of support among African-Americans, given their natural affinity for the first black president. Consider the table below, comparing Obama with the last president, Bush; the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton; and the last president to take office in a recession, Reagan; all in ABC/Post polls in which their approval ratings roughly matched Obama’s today. Approval for Reagan and Bush were 38 and 33 points higher, respectively, among whites than among blacks. Clinton, by contrast, did 31 points better among blacks than among whites. The gap for Obama is bigger, 52 points. But it’s not chiefly because he’s doing worse than Clinton among whites – those numbers are quite similar. Rather it’s because Obama is so popular among African-Americans.                     % Approve    
                All   Whites   Blacks
Obama now       53%     44%      96%
Bush 10/03      53      58       25
Clinton 10/95   52      47       78
Reagan 11/81    53      57       19 Back to the bigger picture, we’ve reported in detail the simple fact that Obama is following the expected path for a president in a bad economy. His approval rating across his first year (down 15 points) correlates at .88 with Ronald Reagan’s in his first year (down 16 points). Rather than focusing on the approval number du jour, the trend over time is what matters, and this is a movie we’ve seen before, regardless of the president’s race. (Beyond Reagan, remember the first President Bush, who tumbled by an astonishing 51 points in a single year, yanked from his post-Gulf War perch by the aftermath of the 1990-91 recession.)
This chart from our most recent analysis is pretty remarkable – and the line for Reagan’s second year underscores Obama’s challenges. With Reagan as a precedent, Obama’s got a shot at improving his popularity when the economy improves. But ’til then, the road ahead looks like a rough one.

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