Many Republicans are pleased that President Obama’s approval rating has fallen to just 50%, a major drop from nearly 70% when he took office. Historical comparisons might, however, put this in context. (Approval rating data from the Wall Street Journal)
Ronald Reagan began his Presidency at about 60% approval, which went up a bit after the failed assassination attempt on March 31, 1981. Due to what were seen by many as extremist policies undertaken by Reagan along with a Republican majority in the Senate and an alliance of the GOP and southern Democrats in the South, Reagan’s numbers began to tank. The economy continued in a tailspin too — electing the golden voiced orator who espoused optimism did not elicit the magic people had expected. By the start of 1982 his numbers were falling and nearing 50%, comparable to where Obama is at this point. Reagan was seen to be a poor leader, out of touch, and too polarizing. By mid-1983 his approval rating was under 40%.
At that point, Democrats were enthused. Reagan was elected because of his charm and oratory. Now that the public saw what he was really like, only 38% approved of the job he was doing. No President that unpopular can be re-elected, Democrats looked towards 1984 with excitement. However, the economy started to perk again, and with it Reagan’s numbers rose. As 1984 started he was still below 50%, but then as the campaign moved forward, he bounced up to around 57% as he defeated Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. The Republican majority in the Senate also remained in tact. Soon Reagan was over 60%, though he would fall below 50% for much of this second term due to the Iran-Contra arms scandal. He finished on an up note, leaving office with about 57% approval.
Bill Clinton entered office at about 55% approval, but within months he was down in the low forties, below where Obama is now. He did push that back up to 50% by the start of 1994, but as his health care plan was defeated he hit 40% approval by late 1994. The Republicans took back the House and Senate that year, and Clinton looked as weak a President as Reagan had seemed in 1982. The economy started to pick up, however, and by 1996 he was at about 57% when he defeated Bob Dole for re-election. From then on he stayed mostly in the low sixties, even as scandal and intrigue swirled around him. The House impeached him, he survived a trial in the Senate, and his poll numbers stayed high. Like Reagan, he left office considered as a hero to his party, the low early poll numbers forgotten.
George H.W. Bush, however, had no such problems. He started out in the fifties, and zoomed into the sixties and early seventies during his first two years. He did not lose popularity like Reagan had, he continually went up. In 1991 he went over 80% after the Iraq war, and seemed poised for an easy re-election the next year. Then the economy started to sputter. By late summer 1991 he was in the low forties. When he lost to Bill Clinton he had fallen to about 35% approval, though he did bounce back to near 50% by the time he left office.
George W. Bush started high, and peaked after 9-11. He then had a steady drop to near 50% when he was re-elected, followed by an ongoing drop to ratings in the high twenties by the end of his term.
The bottom line in all of this is that Presidential approval ratings at this point are a poor indicator of anything, except perhaps the off year elections. The Republicans should do very well this fall if Obama’s numbers go lower, though if he can hold at 50% it may not be as good as the Republicans hope for. Obama, like Clinton and Reagan, are suffering less from any lack of performance on their part then the state of the economy. To be sure, Clinton’s failed effort to reform health care drove down his numbers, and Obama may be experiencing a similar fate. And, like Clinton, Obama is a target of a conspiracy theory minded right wing attack. Obama is a socialist born in Kenya with radical ideas hidden behind a pragmatic veneer, if you buy the conspirators’ line. Clinton had been a draft dodging radical who had people murdered and ran the White House like a mafia clan. But while those conspiracy stories can inflame the far right, they don’t reach much into the general public, and often create a false sense by the extremists that the President is less popular than he really is.
Moreover, as the example of President Bush the Elder shows, high early numbers by no means guarantees a positive result. Economic problems in late 1991 did President Bush, and erased approval highs that no other President had reached. Only Bush the Younger approached such levels, and he left office with the lowest approval ratings ever.
Reagan and Clinton had their political obituaries written in 1983 and 1993 respectively. They were failed Presidents, elected because of charm and offering “something new” — each espoused change — but were not up to the job. Each proved that the reports of their political deaths were premature. Bush the Elder was a sure thing for re-election, only to plummet dramatically to the ground.
So as one takes stock of the current state of affairs, trying to judge the future by the political winds of today is impossible. It’s also too early to assume that Obama will bounce back like Reagan and Clinton — that might happen, but there is no guarantee. Although Bush the Younger did manage to get re-elected, his poll numbers never bounced back once they started slipping. Finally, it’s pretty clear that the President’s approval reflects less a response to the President’s actual job performance, and more a feeling people have about the state of the nation. If things seem to be going well, and perhaps if the President has clear public successes, people will judge more favorably. If things seem to be going poorly, and the President seems either invisible or under fire, they will judge less favorably.
So, Republicans can enjoy Obama’s current relatively low approval ratings, and maybe hope that like Clinton and Reagan, he continues to fall, perhaps to the 38% experienced by Reagan. Democrats can take heart in the fact that 50% historically isn’t so bad, and he could fall farther and still have strong reason to believe things will get better. But most of us can see the number as a short term sense of the mood of the country, subject to dramatic changes if conditions change.