The latest Gallup poll on President Obama’s job approval rating contained an interesting nugget of information. After two years on the job, Barack Obama’s approval rating is higher than that of two recent presidents who had big reelection victories, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. One term Presidents George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter, and post-9/11 president George W. Bush had higher ratings than Obama at the halfway mark.
According to the Gallup poll, Obama’s weekly job approval rating is holding steady at 47%. Despite all of the criticism that this president has faced his approval rating is down only slightly from the same week in 2009 when it was 51%. The problem with weekly job approval ratings is that at best they only provide an immediate snapshot of public opinion. They do not encompass long term trends, or the possible shifting of attitudes based on long term unfolding political developments, but with the economy continuing to struggle, the fact that Obama’s approval rating is remaining steady is good news for the White House.
At the halfway point of Obama’s term, his approval rating is right in the middle of the pack when the last six presidents are ranked. George H.W. Bush had the highest approval rating at the midpoint of his term, (63%). Second on the list was his son, George W. Bush, (61%). Next on the list is Jimmy Carter at 51%. Obama was fourth at 47%, and surprisingly two most popular recent presidents were at the bottom. Ronald Reagan was at 43%, and Bill Clinton was at 40%.
Both of the Bush presidencies had their midterm popularity boosted by the patriotism of being war time presidents. For George H.W. Bush, the Gulf War boosted his approval, while George W. Bush was still benefiting from the nation’s emotional reaction to 9/11 and their support of the war in Afghanistan. Because of this neither of these presidents’ approval ratings are an accurate comparison to Obama. Carter is an interesting case, but his approval rating was soon to plummet under the weight of the Iran hostage crisis.
A more accurate comparison for Obama is to the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. In 1994, Bill Clinton saw his approval rating sink to as low as 39%. The high water mark for Clinton from July of 1994 through the rest of the year was 48%. President Clinton’s approval rating from Thanksgiving until the end of the year did not go any higher than 42%. Clinton also suffered a disastrous midterm defeat where his party lost control of both the House and the Senate.
Until the current recession, the Reagan recession was the worst in recent memory. It might seem hard to believe now, because Reagan is remembered as a popular president, but Reagan’s job approval rating for his second year in office was 43%. Reagan struggled through most of 1983. He began the year with an approval rating of 35%, and it took him 11 months of the year to reach a 50% job approval rating.
After closing the year with a string of legislative successes, the talk of Obama being a one term president, or facing a 2012 primary challenger has faded, but the ongoing recession has taken a toll on the President’s job approval ratings. By looking at the differential between Reagan and Clinton’s recessionary and post-recession approval ratings, it is possible to argue that a poor economy can cost a president 10-15 points of approval. These things considered, President Obama isn’t in that bad of shape as he heads into the second half of his first term.
Only George W. Bush had a midterm approval rating of over 50% and went on to win reelection. Bush is somewhat of a special case as he benefitted at the midpoint from terrorism concerns and the war in Afghanistan, and he was able to narrowly win reelection by campaigning on being a wartime president, and the war in Iraq. In 2004, Bush was able to capitalize on American voters’ reluctance to change presidents during wartime.
As the economy turns upwards, Obama’s approval ratings will follow. The fact that this president has managed to keep his approval rating near 50% despite the economy, an epic midterm election loss by his party, and daily criticism by his opposition is not good news for Republicans looking ahead to 2012. Should the economy improve by the time Obama faces reelection, I think he will probably achieve a similar result to what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton will able to accomplish with their reelection bids.