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.