July 19th, 2010, 2010 -- President Obama's steep decline in popularity since taking office should be distressing for Democrats, but at least from a historical standpoint -- and if past is precedent -- he can be compared to one looming American political figure: Ronald Reagan.
It is a comparison sure to send conservatives, many of whom idolize Reagan and abhor Obama's policies, running for the hills. It will likewise unsettle a good number of Democrats still frustrated by Reagan's policies.
But placed together on a graph the two men's approval ratings snake and jut downwards like a helix, from almost identical starting points, with approval in the high 60s, down to about 50 percent in the first year and a half. (Spoiler Alert: Reagan's popularity continued down to a low of 42 percent and Republicans lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives after two years of the Reagan presidency. Many political experts predict even stiffer losses for Democrats in November.)
"It is absolutely uncanny. A relationship like this is remarkable," said Gary Langer, ABC's polling director, who has been noting the popularity comparison between the two men since Obama's inauguration. Read Langer's analysis here and here.
"I couldn't help thinking that if Obama compares himself to any other president, it seems to me to be Ronald Reagan," said George Stephanopoulos after a lunch with the president before this year's State of the Union address. "Despite ultimately having an enormously popular presidency, at this point in his presidency -- just one year in -- Reagan had lower approval ratings than Obama does now and faced an array of economic challenges," wrote Stephanopoulos.
Obama's personal regard for the change that Reagan's presidency represented (although not his policies) was well documented during the 2008 Presidential election.
Yet there's a simple explanation for the parallel in popularity between Reagan and Obama, according to Ron Kaufman, White House Political Director for the first President Bush, "It's the economy stupid."
That same slogan became Bill Clinton's mantra in 1992, and ultimately sent George H.W. Bush and Kaufman out of the White House.
"I think that presidents as a whole get more credit than they deserve and more blame than they deserve," said Kaufman, referring to presidential approval and the economy.
Consider the issue of unemployment. Early in Reagan's tenure, it was over 10 percent, as it was for Obama.
But there are complicating factors for Obama.
"Obama is in a worse situation," said James Pfiffner, a presidential scholar and professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
"He is conducting two wars, neither of which are likely to be 'won' by the U.S.," Pfiffner said. "He is also facing the worse economic situation. Unfortunately for him, the actions he took to alleviate the depression [huge deficit spending] are being used effectively against him by the Republicans."
Indeed, concerns over the skyrocketing $13 trillion debt have in large part given rise to the conservative and independent angst fueling the grassroots tea party movement nationwide.
Pfiffner also argued -- an argument disputed by many -- that Reagan was more firmly grounded in his beliefs than Obama.
"Reagan had one advantage in that he had a clear ideology, so his supporters would vote for him because he represented their values," Pfiffner said. "Obama, on the other hand, despite accusations of being a socialist, etc., is a moderate who has made many compromises that have hurt him with his base."
Obama will ultimately be judged on whether the things he does to help the economy actually work, Kaufman said. He doesn't think they will and predicts that Obama will be a one-term President.
"You're dealt a set of cards that you have to play. But you have to play those cards in relation to the other hands at the table. It's how you play them that matters," said Kaufman, comparing presidential politics to poker.
There is no similarity between what Reagan did to help the ailing economy in the early 1980s versus what Obama did between 2008 and 2010. Reagan cut taxes. Obama spent nearly a trillion dollars to kick start the economy.
They couldn't be more different, but as Democrat Robert Shrum recently argued, both sought to act in their first terms on a grand scale.
"There is no factor that affects presidential popularity so strongly and so consistently as a bad economy, with the possible exception of an unpopular war," said Langer, who said Obama's ratings could easily turn around, but only if the economy improves.
"A bad economy essentially guarantees a president's unpopularity. A good economy does not guarantee a president's popularity, it just makes it possible," he said.