Giving Up On Obama?

Why the worries about President Obama's job approval?

Posted Aug 19, 2010

In recent weeks, I've been reading that folks in Washington, especially Democrats, are concerned and worried about perceptions that President Obama's star is fading.  The NY Times' Matt Bai published a piece, "The Paradox of a Legislative President" recently that discusses these worries.

It's worth quoting Bai at length, because he summarizes the concerns:  "Democrats in Washington are divided and somewhat puzzled over President Obama's fading popularity ... some of the party's leading strategists told me that it all comes down to messaging ... The president who ran such a brilliant campaign, they argue, has utterly failed to communicate his successes."  

The other theory that Bai discusses comes from John Podesta, who argued "that the president's most important job in a crisis, requiring nearly single-minded attention, was to pass huge legislation."  And according to this theory, it was this foray into a "legislative presidency" that has fueled Obama's faltering and fading popularity.

When I began hearing about these concerns about Obama's fading popularity, I have to say that they didn't surprise me.  First, Obama started his presidency with such a surge of goodwill and popularity that it was nearly impossible to believe that he could go anywhere but down!  In Gallup's Obama Job Approval data, you see this clearly.  He started his administration with very high approval. 

Second, these concerns also ignore one of the most consistent results that pollsters and academic ressearchers have documented:  presidential job approval typically starts quite high when a new president takes office, and falls in the days and months that follow.  This is something that you also can see clearly in the Gallup data.

Turns out that Gallup has been collecting this same data for most of the post-WWII period (which has been extensively studied by academics). Recently Gallup's Frank Newport recently presented some of their job approval results, which are exactly consistent with what anyone who has studied public opinion about past presidential administrations knows ("Does the Evidence Support an Obama 'Meltdown' and 'Stunning Decline' in Approval Ratings?").

Newport studies presidential job approval for all of the presidents back to Eisenhower, and presents the analysis in his study.  Here's what Newport finds:

"The average drop in approval ratings from January through August in the second year in office for these nine presidents is 9.4 points. Obama’s six-point drop so far this year is thus below average and tied for the lowest -- with the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower. So it does not appear appropriate to say that Obama has undergone a “dramatic slide” in his second year in office, either absolutely or in terms of comparisons to other presidents.

Further, Obama’s latest 45% weekly average is by no means at the bottom of where previous presidents have been at this time in their first term. Obama is doing better now than were former Presidents Clinton, Reagan, or Carter in August of their second years. He is doing worse than either of the former President Bushes, both of whose approval ratings were buoyed in their second years by international events and foreign policy ... "

So I'd say that it is too early for both pundits and Democrats to be giving up on Obama.  Decades of research on how the public evaluates presidential job performance have shown that presidents typically come into office with high approval ratings, and that they typically fall, sometimes considerably, during their first few years in office.  There is no reason that Obama should be an exception to this general pattern.  And given that he took office in the midst of economic crisis and war, it actually looks like he is doing pretty well when you compare his job approval to that of past presidents at the same time in their administrations.