by Abigail Quackenboss
Thanks to our 189 voters on Tuesday, February 18, who responded to our daily poll that asked “Should the President authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline?” This was probably one of our higher response rates in the past month. In addition, there was great discussion on the page – something we love to see!
For those of you who are interested in how the cookie crumbled, here are the response percentages from the poll.
These differ quite a bit from the response that Gallup received in March 2012 when 57% of respondents polled believed that the U.S. government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, Pew found similar results with its September 2013 poll, with 65% of respondents in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline.
The real question is why do our results differ so much from what Gallup and Pew say are representative samples of the American population? Well, there could be a number of factors. First, and probably most likely, is that our sample is not necessarily the most representative. We had 189 respondents, which I said was a lot, but when doing public opinion polls, pollsters prefer to get numbers upwards of 1,000. An increased sample size tends to be more representative, but only to a certain extent. (Once you get too large of a sample size you are just wasting time and money.)
Another possible reason, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that our respondents tend to be a bit more liberal with their ideologies than what would be expected in a larger sample. Don’t misinterpret this as me saying ALL of our users are more left on a political spectrum. I am simply saying the nature of the beast (technology, daily use, younger users) suggests we are a bit more left.
A final explanation I would guess might have an impact on the responses is the recent release of the environmental impact statement from the State Department. Although the State Department said there would be no real impact, many individuals and organizations are still skeptical about what sort of irreversible damage we might incur through this 1,180 mile pipeline running from Canada to Texas.
As of right now, the Keystone XL project is stalled again, this time by a lawsuit in Nebraska. Once again, we will have to wait and see how this debacle plays out and whether or not the project will get the go-ahead from a) Nebraska, and eventually b) the President.
by Abigail Quackenboss
Originally proposed in 2008, the Keystone XL Pipeline has been on a long and tumultuous journey to receive approval from the powers that be (the State Department and the President) to go ahead with completion. The current pipeline, known simply as the Keystone Pipeline, runs from Canada through a number of states: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and finally to refineries in Texas. Stretching approximately 2,150 miles, the Keystone Pipeline has the ability to carry nearly 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the U.S. However, the Keystone Pipeline itself is not the contentious piece of the puzzle.
Rather, there is one leg, a very long leg, of the project (the “XL” in “Keystone XL”), that has stirred a lot of debate. This proposed pipeline would run from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, and to Nebraska. According to Keystone-XL.com, the proposed leg would have a carrying capacity of over 800,000 barrels per day.
But why, if there is already a crude oil pipeline running from Canada to the U.S. are we concerned about this expansion project? Essentially, the Keystone XL pipeline has been a hot button issue since its proposal in 2008. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the number of jobs that this project will create has been disputed from the beginning. Although the project will certainly create jobs, the real question is how many. Reports vary anywhere from 35 permanent jobs (according to the State Department), to 20,000 construction jobs according to proponents of the project.
There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the pipeline. A number of environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund are concerned that the expansion project will have a negative impact on the environment. Their concerns range from water pollution across the Great Plains due to construction to the potential for leaks and soil contamination. These could lead to more problems in the long run. However, these views concerns contradict the much-anticipated report from the State Department, released earlier this month, which can be found here, which stated there would be no significant impact on the environment if the expansion project were to be completed. Why did the State Department have to do the analysis? Because the pipeline crosses our border to Canada, this project and its environmental impact statement fell under the Department’s jurisdiction.
In addition to environmental concerns, there are safety concerns stemming from the project. It has been reported that if the U.S. continues to move crude oil by rail rather than by the proposed pipeline, we will be at risk for dangerous accidents, which could threaten the lives of many. The counter-argument (in favor of the pipeline) is that if we no longer have to move crude oil via rail, individuals will be less at risk.
Another argument surrounding the project surrounds what will happen to the oil once it has been refined in Texas. While many supporters of the pipeline have suggested the oil will be kept here in the U.S. to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, others have suggested that it will be sold to other fossil fuel-dependent countries such as China and India. It can then be argued that if President Obama is truly committed to green energy and our oil dependency, he should again delay the project. However, the oil is not coming from the Middle East, (remember, the pipeline runs from Canada to Texas). In addition, if the Keystone XL project is not completed, it is likely that the rail to transport the oil, which Canadian oil companies have stated they will continue with if the project is not approved, will contribute more to greenhouse emissions than just the oil itself if piped to refineries.
What does the public think of the Keystone XL? Well, according to a Pew Research poll from September, 65% of Americans are in favor of the expansion. However, public opinion does not dictate policy and political action. As of right now, the ball is in President Obama’s court. He has stated that he would not make a decision about the pipeline until the environmental impact statements come back. Now that the public knows what is in the reports, we play a waiting game. Hopefully this will finally be a year of action, in one direction or another.
by Abigail Quackenboss
Last month a court ruling went largely unnoticed, especially by the people whom we would expect to care most about it: internet users. What was the ruling? Net neutrality was overturned. Now, I am by no means an expert on Net neutrality. In fact, before being assigned to write this blog, I’d never heard of it. But it’s definitely a concept that has broader implications. Consider this your crash-course in Net neutrality.
What is Net neutrality?
Net neutrality was designed to keep the playing field level for all websites. It required that Internet service providers (ISPs) give all websites the same level of priority when sending information on the Web. For example, when Net neutrality was in effect, an ISP such as Verizon, Comcast, or Cox Cable could not give preferential treatment to websites that they held a stake in.
In layman’s terms, please.
Basically, now that Net neutrality is out the window, ISPs could discriminate against internet companies or internet users. Your ISP can decide how much speed they will award each site. For example, video streaming sites such as YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix are likely to be impacted because they are bandwidth hogs. For example, during primetime, Netflix accounts for about 32% of data being sent to users. You might not be able to watch the next season of House of Cards at the drop of a hat. Instead, because your ISP can now throttle the bandwidth for Netflix data, your binge watching session might take a lot more than the 14 hours of actual programming. It might seem like the days of dial-up, waiting for videos to buffer. The instantaneousness of a site may be lost. In theory this could impact more than just how much you pay for internet. It could also impact what sites you can see. Trying to view a site that doesn’t align with the mission of the ISP? Would it be a coincidence if that site loaded at a snail’s pace? Could this be a way for companies to censor content?
That sounds awful.
It really does. And the greater implications sound even worse. In order to get back to the internet speed that you enjoy, or is at least more tolerable, ISPs may require users to pay. That’s right. If you thought you were paying a lot for Internet already, ISPs could potentially offer tiered packages. Want to watch a funny cat video on YouTube? $.50 per video. Want unlimited access to your favorite shows and movies on Netflix? With the ISPs in control, they could charge whatever they want, especially if you are opting to stream from a site they don’t host. (For example, NBC has stake in Hulu. Theoretically, Comcast, which owns NBC, can give preferential treatment to Hulu over Netflix.) And to throw another wrench into it all, have you considered how ISPs would know which sites to slow down for you personally? (Hint: They’re not the NSA, but they might be watching what you search for and do on the internet.)
So when should I expect my Internet rate to go up?
Well, here’s the sort-of bright side: ISPs have assured us that this court ruling will not impact how they provide internet service.
That’s reassuring. (Sarcasm.)
I know it’s not. Luckily, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a number of other options to this ruling. The FCC could appeal the decision. They could also reclassify what broadband is. (Under the 2010 rules, Broadband wasn’t a tradition service provider like your telephone.) The ruling from a few weeks ago said that under the current (2010) classification, the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce Net neutrality.
Why are ISPs arguing against Net neutrality?
First, there is the argument that some people just use more than their share of the bandwidth to go on their Netflix binges. Shouldn’t they be charged more if they’re using more than an Internet user who is simply checking their email once a week? There’s also the argument that in order to keep up with technology to keep improving Internet speeds for sites such as YouTube and Netflix, companies have to charge more for the improvement costs. Finally, there is the argument that Net neutrality is limiting competition. If a user can get around having to pay more to watch their Netflix, they will.
Could this have any implications on the 2014 midterm elections?
Could I win the lottery? Of course it could. Will it? I’m not an expert on elections, but I going to guess this will not be the hot button issue of the year. Congress seems to have bigger fish to fry. That’s not to say they are ignoring Net neutrality completely. In fact, Democrats have introduced legislation that will temporarily bar ISPs from breaking old Net neutrality rules until the FCC is able to get it together to create their own rules or re-categorize. It’s not certain whether these bills will pass in both houses, but at least it is a glimmer of hope.
President Obama has also made statements in support of Net neutrality, so consumers have that working for them as well. I think (well, maybe it’s mostly wishful thinking) that we will eventually see Net neutrality return. It will just be a matter of time. Hopefully the ISPs don’t get any big ideas in the meantime.
by Abigail Quackenboss
Last week, President Obama stood before all of Congress and America to deliver his fifth State of the Union address. While there were a number of issues addressed during the 65-minute speech, there was one particular topic that was of interest to me: education.
There are many aspects to education, and as a college student the most important of which is paying for it. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Student Loan Reform Act, which partly goes into effect this year. The bill is multi-faceted. The bill stopped giving subsidies to third party lenders, and instead the Department of Education would award loans directly. Those who begin borrowing this year will no longer have to pay back up to 15% of each monthly paycheck to their student loans. Rather, the repayment is capped at 10%. Another important piece states that new borrowers in 2014 will have their loans forgiven after 20 years, if payments are made on time. This is down from the previous forgiveness time span on 25 years.
As a college student, I understand how important this funding can be. Many of my friends in school, mostly sophomores and juniors, began taking out loans in their third semester of school. Let me reiterate that: college students are taking out loans before they have completed half their coursework necessary for graduation. In some cases, students are entirely dependent upon these loans. Their ability to repay a loan is riding on if they get a decent paying job after graduation.
That is a big if. According to The Fiscal Times, college graduates are entering the workforce completely unprepared. As a collective group, graduates lack work ethic, critical thinking skills, and interpersonal communication skills. That’s ludicrous. I cannot fathom why students would take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans only to not properly prepare themselves for the work force. Then again, I suppose that I can only hope the work ethic I have developed from being a three-time Dean’s List student who is also involved with NCAA D3 sports and holds two jobs on campus, in addition to the critical thinking skills fostered by my college, will hold up in the real world. Unfortunately, my suspicions won’t be confirmed or refuted until I get to the “real world”. What’s even scarier are some data recently released by The Atlantic. They said that 18.5% of Bachelor’s Degree holders were living back with their parents and in the past five years, 40% of 27-year-olds have spent some time unemployed. That means out of my 16-woman cross country team, nearly 7 of us may spend some time unemployed within five years of graduating. Yikes.
I remember in high school our teachers emphasized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) a great deal. But according to the National Math and Science Initiative, only 36% of students graduate with a STEM major, while 62% of careers will require some knowledge of these areas. Maybe this is why there are so many unemployed or underemployed college graduates these days?
I consider myself very lucky. I received a generous scholarship that covers most of my tuition, and much of my coursework so far has focused on communication skills and critical thinking – which I think (hope) will help me a lot after graduating. And to be on the safe side, I have declared a math minor, which I will complete in the fall.
My younger brother, bless his soul, does not have the knack for school that I did. He’s very smart, but lacks the interest for books and abstract concepts, much of the things a four year degree would require. But he sure is good with tools and real-world skills. In fact, if I asked him, my little brother could change the oil in my car and my tires while he was at it. That, folks, is impressive. Did I mention he is thirteen? Yet he often feels discouraged. He knows school doesn’t come easily for him, yet he doesn’t want to quit after high school. There must be a solution here.
Maybe it is time that we rethink what it means to be prepared for the workforce. Having a four-year degree isn’t a guaranteed ticket to happiness and success. There are plenty of skilled manufacturing jobs and trades that can bring equal if not more economic prosperity than getting a job with a degree. This is something President Obama realizes. On Thursday, he spoke in Wisconsin about forming partnerships between high schools and apprenticeship programs at manufacturing and trade jobs. My brother, and many other students, would be perfect candidates for these sorts of programs. In addition, President Obama signed an executive order that will evaluate all job training programs across the nation to ensure that workers are being properly trained for good, in-demand jobs. And that is something I think we can all be excited about, regardless of party. Getting people into good paying, skilled jobs will help us all in the long run.
The reality of it is that being prepared for the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hold a degree, in STEM or even in underwater basket weaving. Instead it means that you are recognizing your strengths, be they in academia or trades, and fostering those skills. We are all entitled to our piece of the American Dream, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to follow the same path to get there.
We are headed back to SXSW this year. For Votifi - it pretty much all started for us at SXSW in 2012. That year we had a chance to demo our product and meet with folks who have helped us a great deal to build this company.
This year one of our co-founders, Aasil Ahmad, is part of an awesome panel called “What Would Cesar Chavez Tweet”. The panel will discuss some of the most effective social media strategies that have been raising the volume for grassroots movements in the Latino community. Empowering groups through technology was one of the principles that we built Votifi on and we’re excited to share our insights on technology and activism. If you are planning to be at SXSW this year please join us. The panel is open to the public (you don’t need a SXSW badge) and will take place on March 7th at 3:30PM.
Before we head to Austin we want to hear from you! What do you use social media for, and how has it changed your level of civic engagement? Take our survey above and let us know. We’ll release the findings during our panel. And follow along the conversation on Twitter via #SXSW and #WWCCT. Thanks!
by Matt Sarge
The Obama Administration recently proposed new IRS rules that could begin to reign in campaign spending by tax-exempt outside groups that expanded significantly since the Citizens United case in 2010. The current rules allow for non-profits to engage in political activity and lobbying so long as they are also “improving social welfare.” The new IRS rules would place a limit on the political spending of these non-profit groups, which would either lead to reduced political activity or registering as an explicitly political organization (such as a PAC).
Non-profits are currently exploited as vehicles for political spending because of the anonymity they offer to donors. Political non-profits are not required to disclose donors identities, unlike Super PACs and political parties. The new rules are controversial given both the vested interest that many prominent voices have in allowing for robust campaign expenditures. Additionally, given the recent scandal surrounding IRS treatment of Tea Party affiliated groups, any IRS rule changes that can be seen as limiting political speech are likely to ignite opposition amongst conservatives. Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is a tax-exempt group that would be highly affected by the rule changes and is currently a major financing source for Republican candidates and causes, while the League of Conservation Voters would be the largest group impacted on the Democratic side. However, the rule change to the allowed political behavior of non-profits would have a disproportionate impact of conservative groups, as nine of the ten largest political non-profits in the 2012 cycle were Republican-leaning.
Outside Spending by Type - Center for Responsive Politics
Spending by tax-exempt social welfare groups has been a major source of campaign expenditure growth, more so than unions and trade associations. Because finance rules often affect Democratic-leaning unions differently than the political non-profits that Republicans rely on, campaign finance issues can become politically charged. However, given the recent proliferation in spending by political non-profits, curbing the political activities of the 501c (4) tax exempt groups that flourished in the wake of Citizens United is an obvious attempt to limit the influence of anonymous money in politics.
If the rules are approved, corporate spending on elections is not necessarily going to be curtailed. Given the vast array of options that corporations and mega-donors have for getting their money into an election, the only effect that the proposed rule changes may have is forcing more of that money to go through channels that require disclosure. The SEC recently dropped a proposal that would have required public companies to disclose all political donations to their shareholders. So while corporations may not be required to disclose, more may choose to donate their money through political groups that require disclosure due to the proposed new rules governing political activity of non-profits. In a post-Citizens United world, limiting the influence of money in elections is unlikely – but that influence may have to be a little more transparent.
by Matt Sarge
The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of history’s finest and most succinct pieces of oratory, has brought the character of Abraham Lincoln to the forefront of public discourse. With time having eroded most of the controversies of his presidency, Lincoln is now viewed nearly unanimously in a positive light for having guided the nation through one of its most trying moments, and for ending one of America’s greatest enduring sins – slavery. As such a powerful and well-regarded figure, Lincoln has been claimed by both the Republicans and Democrats as being representative of their ideology.
As the first Republican President, the GOP has a partisan identity to cling to. Additionally, given the general historical trend toward more liberal (in the modern sense) ideology, most of Lincoln’s policy positions would be viewed by today’s standards as conservative or even reactionary, though at the time they may have been quite liberal or revolutionary. Lincoln’s rejection of the status quo provides Democrats a basis for the claim that Lincoln, if alive today, would be a liberal Democrat.
A recent YouGov poll found that only twenty-three percent of Americans thought that if Lincoln were alive today he would remain a Republican, whereas thirty-two percent said he would be a Democrat. The YouGov results echo the findings of Votifi’s poll which had only eighteen percent of respondents answering that Lincoln would be a member of the Republican Party or Tea Party movement. As might be expected, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats claimed Lincoln would be a member of their party in the YouGov poll. Similarly, the political profiles of the Votifi respondents show significantly more conservative political leanings for those that claimed Lincoln as a Republican than those who argued he would be a Democrat.
Trying to objectively view which modern party Lincoln would fit in is a difficult task that requires removing oneself from the modern framing of issues. Dick Morris argues that Lincoln was not really a liberal despite the abolition of slavery that is viewed as the hallmark of his presidency. Morris claims that Lincoln’s real commitment was to entrepreneurial capitalism and the wage system. As someone who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Lincoln recognized the importance of a wage system for upward mobility, and viewed slavery as a barrier to an effective wage system.
Morris argues that Lincoln’s seemingly liberal views on slavery were not rooted in views of equality but rather economic efficacy, and in fact Lincoln continued to harbor racist views. Morris’ argument is somewhat supported by the additional fact that Lincoln did not initially intend to abolish slavery but rather simply contain its westward spread until the conditions of the Civil War made abolition necessary. If Lincoln should indeed be viewed as a free-market capitalist rather than a liberal committed to equality, then perhaps the twenty-three percent are correct that Lincoln would be at home in today’s GOP.
Many have made coherent arguments that Abraham Lincoln would instead be a modern day Democrat. Greg Bailey centers his argument on the grounds that Lincoln supported using government power to invest in the public good and fighting against states’ rights arguments and xenophobic rhetoric.
“A reincarnated Lincoln would relive part of his past life listening to the states’ rights arguments contemporary Republican use against any proposal to help working families. The president who levied an income tax on the wealthy would have been shocked at George W. Bush’s disproportionate tax cut to the wealthiest one percent.”
In the intervening 150 years, major realignment within the two major parties has occurred resulting in a nearly exclusively liberal and exclusively conservative Democratic and Republican Party respectively. However, given the impossibility of fully understanding the motivations behind, and complexities of, Lincoln’s political ideology, it is not necessarily clear which modern party he would fall into. However, so long removed from the controversies of his presidency which left the South to single-party Democratic rule until the 1960s,
Lincoln is now viewed in such a positive light that both parties lay claim to being descendant of his ideology.
by Gene Giannotta
A couple weeks ago, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a large margin. Sixty-four senators voted for it, including a number of Republicans. But it’s unlikely to make it through the House - Speaker Boehner has said he won’t bring it to the floor, and even if he did, the GOP majority would seem to be a large stumbling block.
But recent research by the Williams Institute finds that majorities in every House district support the legislation, saying this “confirms that ENDA would pass if all members followed their constituents.”
Over at the Monkey Cage blog, Andrew Gelman points to this as evidence that, if brought to a vote, the bill should pass in the House. He also cites an earlier piece showing that support was very strong in every state, which meant that passage in the Senate should be a sure thing, too. If senators all voted based on the overwhelming levels of public support in their states. After all, the lowest level of support was in Mississippi, and that was 63%!
Alas, Mississippi’s two senators voted “nay,” as did a few dozen others. So popular support among constituents, even very high levels of support, is no guarantee of votes in Congress.
Gelman, however, seems to think that high levels of public support in every district means that representatives will be hard-pressed to vote in any way other than for the bill.
Regarding primary elections: Yes, Republican Congress members have to worry about the attitudes of conservative Republican primary election voters. But that’s not the whole story, as they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts. To put it another way, general attitudes in the district are relevant, and with 70-80 percent support overall, I don’t think primary voters can be as opposed as all that.
Regarding the issue of intensity of support: The suggestion is that voters who oppose gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than voters who support gay rights. It is possible, but I have no particular reason to believe it—if anything, given the nature of the issue, I’d be inclined to believe the opposite, that supporters of gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than do opponents. And you’d need a huge huge difference in intensity to overcome the huge disparities in support that we see from the polls.
I especially want to highlight this: “they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts.” That sounds reasonable, but is not the reality. After all, many senators did just that apparently. And, as the Williams Institute itself points out, “When a similar bill was considered in 2007, 183 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against it, even though a majority of their constituents supported the policy.”
There are other examples, too. Say, gun control. Large majorities - around 90% - back universal background checks, but that has not helped legislation pass, not even in the wake of a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.
And while Gelman notes that supporters of gay rights are probably quite enthusiastic about achieving policy changes like ENDA, that’s not the real question here. I doubt that even if three-quarters of a particular district supports passing ENDA, three-quarters of that district is ready to mobilize politically to encourage their representatives to vote for it. Perhaps in some cases, but all? No, one can support - even “strongly” support - a particular policy without necessarily being ready to act. And when it comes to effecting political change, what matters is not responses to surveys, but action.
These findings, while interesting and useful in helping us understand attitude trends, don’t really help us understand why particular representatives might act a certain way. There is no conceivable universe in which all 435 representatives vote “aye” for passage of ENDA. The simplest explanation for why is that for many, especially Republicans, there just isn’t any incentive that translates passive support (attitudes reported as favorable) into the possibility of electoral punishment should a given congressperson vote against it.
Hypothetically, a very liberal district and a very conservative district could both see levels of support for passing ENDA in the 70% range, let’s say. But elections don’t occur in policy vacuums. This might place higher in terms of a liberal constituencies’ priorities when judging candidates on Election Day, but even if they support ENDA, it’s doubtful that conservative voters would punish a candidate who otherwise aligns with their preferences on most, if not all, other policy areas just because of this issue.
by Gene Giannotta
On November 22, 1963, Dallas was “roiling with racism and McCarthyism,” not exactly a welcoming environment for a young Democratic president who had been trying to negotiate nuclear arms treaties with the Soviets and staking progressively more liberal positions on civil rights.
There’s been some controversy over whether Dallas was really a “city of hate” responsible for Kennedy’s death fifty years ago today. Whether or not the city itself fostered an environment conducive to murdering a president, the Dallas of November 1963 certainly wasn’t a place very friendly to JFK and that was no secret to anyone at that time.
For example, here’s one poster that made the rounds as the president flew to Dallas:
When I visited the Newseum earlier this year to check out their JFK exhibit, I was struck seeing both that and this full-page ad that ran in the Dallas Morning News:
We tend to nostalgize the early 1960s in terms far more optimistic than today, but some things have not changed. The anti-government ideology of the tea party may seem to be out of sync with a country that has long relied on Social Security, Medicare, the interstate highway system, and many other examples of federal initiative. But even in Kennedy’s time and the aftermath of his assassination, there was a sizable portion of the population who saw big government as a threat.
I recently came across some Gallup trend lines for the second half of the twentieth century, and, given how we tend to generalize the era as one of pro-government opinion, I was surprised to see that even back in 1965, the high point of the Great Society and post-war liberalism, a plurality of respondents cited “big government” as “the biggest threat to the country in the future.”
Interestingly, “big business” has never really been a strong challenger for the title of “biggest threat,” save in 1965 and 1969. The spike in the mid-sixties seems to correlate with the reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society - this was a time when many social policies where passed and/or put forward by the administration in the wake of JFK’s death (civil rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty), but which also led to a strong electoral rebuke in the 1966 midterms and, eventually, LBJ’s decision to decline a run for reelection in 1968.
So in general, rather than an aberration unique to Obama’s presidency, there’s been an increasingly prevalent view that “big government” is the “biggest threat” facing America over the past fifty years. And while today’s media environment can sometimes make it feel like the crazies are uniquely crazy today, it’s clear in the images above that this isn’t quite true either. Kennedy was as much the target of paranoid animosity as any of the men who followed him in the White House.
Political life in the United States has always been defined by a tension between social responsibility and individual liberty. That’s true today and it was true fifty years ago.
by Gene Giannotta
From Gallup, presidential approval for the past seven two-term presidents at comparable points in their second term:
Overall approval, according to Gallup for presidents in the 20th quarter of their administrations, stands at 46%. Obama is on par with George W. Bush and Harry Truman, slightly outpacing them. Nixon had plenty of problems to contend with after his landslide reelection, and in 1974, he would resign because of Watergate.
Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all had approval ratings around 60% at this point in their presidencies, but none of those men had to contend with the same kind of polarized information environment that we have today.
Here’s a comparison of average approval ratings for each of the presidents since Gallup started tracking in the 1940s:
But as Gallup notes, approval often dips in the second term. They compare the averages:
Two exceptions to the rule:
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the only two out of seven previously re-elected post-World War II presidents who augmented their popularity over the course of their second stretch in office. Reagan and Clinton — who had identical 50% first-term approval averages — each entered office during a down economy and presided over muscular economic growth during their second term. As a result, their approval ratings moved upward; Reagan’s average rose to 55%, while Clinton’s soared to 61%.
That’s interesting given that both presidents faced serious scandals in their second terms - Iran-contra for Reagan and impeachment for Clinton.
(As an aside, I just want to note a big caveat for the Johnson numbers - LBJ’s first term lasted about fourteen months and those consisted of the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the election that he would have been running for reelection in, so that 74% average is probably skewed by that.)
One wrinkle in all this is personal popularity. Those numbers above are for job approval. But the public could cut a president some slack if they think he’s done a mediocre job but like the guy personally. This is a story that’s been common for Obama’s presidency - his approval numbers have largely floated right around the middle but his personal popularity has been quite high.
That, however, seems to be changing.
But is it really? Here’s a chart from the Washington Post last month that compares the likability + approval trends:
Except for the spike in job approval with the death of Osama bin Laden, the trend lines largely correlate, albeit with his favorability ratings slightly higher. That difference is pretty small throughout his presidency but seems to be getting even smaller, to the point of dipping into net negative territory.
Here are some numbers from a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, showing a similar trend:
Rather than just include the headline number for the current polling period, I thought it’d be instructive to look at what their results have shown dating back to 2011. Over 28 polls since January of that year, Obama’s average “very positive” rating was at about 29% of respondents, while the average “very negative” rating was at 27% of respondents. The latest results show him at five percentage points worse than the average in both categories. The margin of error of the current poll is +/- 3.46%, so it’s possible the true values (the actual percent of the population that feels that way) are closer to the averages than the numbers we see here (which are estimates of that actual percent).
In other words, while these numbers certainly aren’t great for Obama and the context in which the most recent polling has been done provides some cause for concern (left a mess, the Affordable Care Act rollout has the potential to undermine his popularity by any measure), they aren’t really shocking. They seem to fit both the broader trends of presidential history and Obama’s own experience.
Another point to make about these poll trends is the role of media coverage. When attention is focused on a particular person, people obviously become more aware of them, more knowledgeable about them, and more able to make judgments. Presidents get a good deal of visibility, period, and when a major policy has come to bear your name it’s no surprise that can make a difference. If the ACA had never been known as “Obamacare” would Obama be saddled with as much of the blame as he has? Or would his response be seen as a popularly-accepted rebuke of government contracting run amok?
It’s impossible to answer those questions, but I can show how attention can help shift opinion. I’ll use two examples of potential presidential candidates and their own favorability ratings from that same NBC News/WSJ poll.
Here’s Hillary Clinton, with data back to 2011:
Like Obama above, she isn’t an unknown quantity - the “don’t know name/not sure” column at the far right has a range of 0-2%. She’s been in the public consciousness for two decades, so people know who she is and can make judgments accordingly. Interestingly, she’s also underperforming her averages despite having been out of the secretary of state job for most of this year. Let’s dig deeper and look at her numbers dating back to her taking office as a senator from New York in 2001:
Just from eyeballing it, what becomes obvious is that her best-performing poll trend was her tenure as secretary of state. Now that she’s mostly a topic of political discussion these days rather than a relatively quiet public servant, maybe opinion of her is defaulting to where it was before 2009. The type of coverage could matter here, and it would be interesting to look at that data to see if there’s a correlation. But for now, I just want to point out the general trends. Like Obama, she’s a well-known public figure. Movement in opinion about her, like that about the president, can be as much a function of factors that are highly-visible (i.e., “salient”) bringing more attention to her and thus “activating” existing biases, as it could be due to actual shifts.
Chris Christie’s favorability ratings offer another example of how greater visibility can make a difference. Back in June 2011, Chris Christie was just over a year into his first term as governor of New Jersey. His “very positive” and “very negative” ratings were about the same as today - 10% and 7% then, 9% and 7% now. But now only about a quarter of respondents said they don’t know who he is, versus 44% two years ago.
The difference there is 18 points. Note that the number who say they have a “somewhat positive” view of him is now 11 percentage points greater than in 2011 and the proportion that says it has a “neutral” view is now 5 points higher. In 2011, almost fifty percent of respondents didn’t know who Christie was; today, almost half of respondents have either a “neutral” or “somewhat positive” view of him. Given the generally positive press attention he’s received over that time span, that’s probably not much of a surprise.
It’s true that Obama’s personal likability, or growing lack thereof, is a story to follow. But what isn’t clear is whether it’s a worrisome trend unique to Obama or a function of two variables he has little control over: historical tendencies of declining second-term popularity and the tone of media coverage.
He has to contend with both. And the debacle over HealthCare.gov and insurance policy cancellations has, for really the first time during his presidency, placed the questions of his managerial competence and honesty front and center in a very bipartisan way. Placed in that context, those declining numbers really aren’t all that surprising.