Obama’s Second Term Honeymoon Looks To Be Over
President Obama's job approval numbers have fallen off from their post-election highs. But, does it matter?
In the wake of his victory in the 2012 elections, the President saw a significant uptick in his job approval numbers to points higher than they had been since his first year in office. Indeed, the numbers seemed to be heading in such a clear upward trajectory that many wondered if it would be the beginning of a cycle that would make it harder for Republicans to block his agenda notwithstanding the fact that they continue to control the House of Representatives. As it turns out, though, and perhaps not surprisingly, the President’s approval ratings appear to be returning to the level they had been at for most of his first term:
The second-term honeymoon for President Obama is beginning to look like it is over.
Obama, who was riding high after his reelection win in November, has seen his poll numbers take a precipitous fall in recent weeks.
A CNN poll released Tuesday showed Obama’s favorability rating underwater, with 47 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving of Obama’s handling of his job.
Much of the president’s agenda is stuck, with climate change regulations delayed, immigration reform mired in committee negotiations and prospects for a grand bargain budget deal in limbo at best.
On Tuesday, in a decision that underscored Obama’s depleting political capital, the White House watched as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced only a watered-down version of Obama’s gun control proposals would be considered on the Senate floor.
Republicans, sensing the sea change, are licking their chops. They point to the lack of movement on Obama’s signature issues, noting the contrast to the ambitious plans outlined in the early weeks of his second term.
“The president set very high goals for himself during his State of the Union, but the reality is very little of his agenda is actually moving,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “He allowed himself to get caught up in the legislative quicksand, [and] the cement is beginning to harden. ”
History isn’t on Obama’s side.
The last four presidents who won a second term all saw their poll numbers slide by mid-March with the exception of Bill Clinton, whose numbers improved in the four months following his reelection.
Clinton may have only been delaying the inevitable. His numbers dropped 5 points in April 1994. Even Ronald Reagan, buoyed by a dominant performance over Walter Mondale in the 1984 election, saw a double-digit erosion by this point in his second term.
Obama has yet to complete the first 100 days of his second term. But without a signature achievement since his reelection, he faces a crossroads that could define the remainder of his presidency.
White House aides maintain that the 24-hour news cycle makes comparisons to previous presidents difficult.
“I think the nature of our politics now is different than Ronald Reagan’s honeymoon,” one senior administration official said. “The ebb and flow of politics doesn’t follow that model anymore.”
But observers say a drop in popularity is typical for second-termers.
“There may be some typical second-term honeymoon fade happening,” said Martin Sweet, an assistant visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University. “Honeymoon periods for incumbents are a bit more ephemeral.”
Indeed, as the RealClearPolitics poll average shows, the drop off in the President’s job approval rating since the election has been both quick and dramatic:
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why it is the the President’s numbers have dropped off so quickly. The most obvious explanation would seem to be the economy since that is the number that typically influences Presidential approval and voter sentiment most directly. However, the economic news of late hasn’t been any worse than it was in the time before the election. While the final quarter of 2012 did show what appears to be, pending its final revision, incredibly slow growth, there have been positive developments on the jobs and housing fronts. So it would seem odd that the public would decide, shortly after having re-elected the President to a second term by a fairly comfortable margin, that the economy was turning sour enough that they were becoming sour on the President. Another possibility is that the public became frustrated that the President wasn’t fulfilling the goals that he had set forth for his second term, but that makes little sense considering that we’re barely 100 days into the President’s first term. Moreover, the same polls that show the President’s job approval numbers dropping also tend to show that the public agrees with him more on issues such as the budget and taxes than they do the opposition.
Instead of anything central to the President, I’d suggest that the post-election drop-off that we’ve seen in the President’s approval numbers is really more of a return to the norm of the Obama Presidency. With the exception of the immediate beginning of his Presidency and the 2012 election, the President’s job approval numbers have fluctuated within a very narrow band. Except for brief periods such as the immediate aftermath of the Gabby Giffords shooting or the Osama bin Laden raid, they haven’t strayed very far north of about 52% or very far south of about 45%. When the 2012 election campaign began in earnest and the public started rallying behind the President, his job approval numbers tended to follow the election poll numbers. After he was re-elected, the numbers continued to rise largely as a result of the “rallying” that typically occurs after a Presidential election. Now, that both the election and the post-election rallying are fading into the past, the President’s numbers are returning to their normal level. Absent some major negative or positive development in the future, I’d expect the President’s approval ratings for the majority of the remainder of his terms to follow roughly the same pattern they did during his first term.
All of this makes me wonder if the President’s job approval numbers really matter anymore. Barack Obama is never again going to be standing for national election, after all, so it’s not like we’re looking at these numbers as some kind of guide of what will be happening in 2016. To some extent, I suppose, the President’s job approval could have an impact on voter sentiment in 2014, but those elections are more likely to be influenced by the state of the economy along with whatever issues end up playing a prominent role 20 months from now. It strikes me that it would be far more important to look at where the public stands on the President’s various agenda items than on his job approval because, in the end, that number simply doesn’t mean as much as it did for the first four years of his Presidency.