Putting Obama’s Job Approval Numbers In Historical Perspective

President Obaama's poll numbers are lower than where Reagan and Clinton were at this point, but not by very much.

Another poll came out earlier today, this one from Marist, showing Barack Obama’s job approval numbers hitting an all time low. Obama’s overall job approval, according to Marist, is at 39%, and his job approval on the economy specifically is at 33%. This is consistent with the numbers I noted from several other polls last week and adds to the trend that those numbers have taken over the past several weeks.

Looking at the static numbers, and the trend, things don’t look good for the President, and that’s not at all surprising given the state of the economy. Historically, however, President Obama isn’t doing that much worse than previous Presidents, including several who have gone on to be re-elected:

Previous modern presidents who have been re-elected to second terms have also held office during bad economies. President Ronald Reagan faced an unemployment rate of over 9 percent in 1983 – similar to the current jobless rate – and his 46 percent job approval rating at this point in his presidency was similar to that of President Obama now. In 1995, President Bill Clinton’s approval rating was 43 percent.

Others have lost their bids for re-election. In September 1991, President George H. W. Bush received a very high 70 percent approval rating, but that was a reflection of the public’s approval of the successful Persian Gulf War earlier in the year. Throughout 1992, his approval ratings fell precipitously, to just 31 percent in July. And Jimmy Carter, another president who faced tough economic conditions, received an approval rating in the fall 1979 of just 31 percent.

So we’ve got three examples where the polling at this point in a President’s term wasn’t necessarily a good indication of how the election 14 months later would play out, and one where it arguably did. Even in that one case, though, it’s worth noting that the public’s opinion of President Carter had recovered sufficiently a year later to the point where, up until the last week of the campaign, he was in a statistical tie with Ronald Reagan, it wasn’t until the debate a week before the election that Reagan managed to make the sale and break away to a landslide victory.

So maybe overall job approval numbers don’t tell us anything. What about the public’s perceptions regarding the economy?

Mr. Obama’s approval rating on handling the economy – which the public has long named the top problem facing the country – is particularly low, at just 34 percent. And although 38 percent of Americans are very concerned they or someone else in their household may lose a job in the next year (up seven points in the last fewmonths), only 40 percent approve of how he is handling job creation.

Other presidents have received worse evaluations on their handling of the economy. President George H.W. Bush received a 14 percent approval rating on the economy in August 1992, and President George W. Bush received just 16 percent approval in late 2008. But assessments of President Obama on this measure are lower than they were for Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan at this point in their respective presidencies.

One of the challenges facing President Obama is the public’s perception that economic conditions are not improving. Forty-three percent think the economy is getting worse, and just 12 percent think it is getting better. More than half the public thinks the country is heading toward or already in another recession.

Both Bill Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings on handling the economy improved during the year before their re-election. Bill Clinton’s approval rating on the economy rose to 55 percent just before his re-election, and between September 1983 and January 1984 Ronald Reagan’s approval rating on the economy rose from 44 percent to 55 percent, and remained in the mid-50s throughout 1984.

But that was not the case for two presidents who were not successful in their re-election bids, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. Both of those one term presidents had sustained low approval ratings on handling the economy before losing re-election.

This may be a more reliable guide to look at, but it’s going to to depend on what happens to the economy between now and Election Day. At that point, we’ll all be able to look at the numbers and see how it went. If the economy improves, or if the public perception becomes that the President is better able to fix the economy than his Republican opponent, then Obama is likely to be re-elected. If neither of those things occur, then he most likely won’t be. The job approval numbers matter, but only in so far as the trend that they’re moving in goes up or down. That trend can change because of a number of factors, including factors having nothing to  do with the economy. The best we can say right now is that, if the current trends continue, and if the economy fails to improve (and the IMF certainly doesn’t think it’s going to improve significantly over the next 14 months) then the President is likely to have a rough time getting re-elected.

I’m seeing a lot of people out there, though, looking at these numbers and prognosticating the end of the Obama Presidency. Something tells me most of them could have some explaining to do come November 7, 2012.

And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    Given the economy, 39% is really kind of amazing.
    Obama is getting cut some slack because the public understands the mess was largley left from Bush, and they give the Republican congress it’s fair share of the blame.
    Here’s my question, because it is about the economy: is there any actual example of any executive in a similar government structure digging out of an equivilant contraction significantly faster?

  2. george says:

    Isn’t there a saying that a year is an eternity in politics? Or is that in sport? I can never keep those two apart.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I think one key differences is that Reagan and Clinton had substantial bi-partisan legislation to run on. Reagan had short coat-tails for an electoral college route because Reaganomics was bi-partisan. Clinton had welfare reform and some other centrist items.

    You can blame House Republicans (post mid-terms) or you can blame Obama, but the fundamental dynamic is different.

  4. samwide says:

    And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?

    Shitfitus Magnum et Disspiritus Profundum

  5. MBunge says:

    “And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?”

    The only variables are whether insane Obama hatred beyond even what we see know will be enough to prevent the destruction of the Republican Party and whether the U.S. business community, which is mostly apolitical outside their own parochial interests and dominated by a few rogue billionaires and activist organizations, will suddenly realize they’ve been tacitly enabling a bunch of folks who really don’t have their best interests at heart.

    Mike

  6. ponce says:

    And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?

    I don’t know, but their tears will be…delicious.

  7. bains says:

    Historically, however, President Obama isn’t doing that much worse than previous Presidents…

    Two caveats however. One, while the polls have been less than unfavorable to Obama personally, his policies (when the polls are not heavily skewed towards protect the One) and administration poll horribly. Granted so does Congress, but then who has had the legislative upper hand since January 2007? Second, anecdotal evidence (and some scientific evidence) suggests that people understandably misstate their level of support for Obama (as with Kennedy e.g.) for fear of demagogic reprimand (and possible economic reprisals and certain – in many en vogue circles – social reproach).

    Right now, Obama is losing his re-election bid, irrespective of how much some of your fellow bloggers are trying to paper over his utter failures to do what he promised. That is not to say he can not turn things around. He has however, shown absolutely no talent to triangulate his radical base and the independents that ultimately put him into the White House – and in which Bill Clinton was so successful.

  8. Scott F. says:

    And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?

    I think it will depend on the make-up of Congress.

    When the Republicans lost big in 2006 and then lost more seats and the WH in 2008, the Republicans would have been well served by some time in the wilderness to regain their bearings as a party. Instead, we got the rise of the Tea Party, which was basically a rebranding of staunch conservatives so they could deny any responsibility for the disaster that was the previous eight years of GOP governance.

    If Scott Brown loses in MA and the Tea Party Freshman are held to account in their districts for running on jobs, jobs, jobs and then delivering exactly bupkis in terms of job creation policy, then perhaps the Republicans will seize the opportunity to reassess they have avoided so far.

    The country would be best served by two sane parties.

  9. bains says:

    And that leads to a question I keep asking myself, how is the right going to react if Barack Obama ends up getting re-elected?

    Similar in emotion to how the left reacted to both Reagan and GW Bush’s second term. I suspect not similar in reaction however (I could be mistaken). The difference, or lack thereof I suspect will be impacted by how “thrill up my leg” the media goes, were that to be the case. In the past five decades, the right has almost always been far more circumspect in the ways they hold “protests”.

  10. jan says:

    I wonder if a tea party activist told a crowd of their own to do this what social progressives, like many of you on this blog are, would say? Would they be called ‘terrorists’ again?

    We Are Heroes, Who Need to Create a Crisis: SEIU’s Stephen Lerner at Progressive Summit Tells Unions, Community Organizers and Students They Need to Escalate Protests, Break Laws, Occupy Abandoned Houses and Spread the Crisis All Over U.S.

    Is this really the highest and best way to get attention for your cause in this country? And, is provoking an ever bigger crisis a credible way to boost Obama’s numbers, being that he is the President to whom union supporters are associated with?

  11. jan says:

    @bains:

    In the past five decades, the right has almost always been far more circumspect in the ways they hold “protests”.

    Your comment is a glove-fit for the video I just posted above about what unions are being encouraged to do at a recent Progressive Summit.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Wow, the President must have super powers, in that people are supposedly afraid of criticizing him for fear of demagogic reprimand, possible economic reprisals, and social reproach…I guess he really is the One! I don’t suppose that there are links to that alleged “scientific evidence”…also, it’s rather amusing that the President’s base is supposedly “radical” while Teabaggers are just salt of the earth normal Americans…umm, yeah…

  13. Hey Dick (formerly Hey Norm) says:

    Bains…
    Again with the failures thing?
    Seriously?
    You realize DADT is dead as of today right?
    I mean…you don’t like his policies, OK. But this whole failures thing is delusional.

  14. bains says:

    You realize DADT is dead as of today right?

    If you are pinning your hopes of an Obama re-election based solely on inevitable revocation of DADT – something that never animated me – then carry on my friend. The caricatures you have to build to sell that, I suspect, will be less successful than the caricatures the left tried to build of the Tea Party as racists, or radicals, or agitators…

  15. An Interested Party says:

    …the caricatures the left tried to build of the Tea Party as racists, or radicals, or agitators…

    As opposed to the caricatures that the right likes to build against progressives and liberals…like the supposed “radical” nature of the President’s base…

  16. bains says:

    …like the supposed “radical” nature of the President’s base…

    I’ve never suggested that our current President was elected by his radical base.

    But they were sold a bill of sales as much as the independents that actually elected him. The caricatures constructed still sell well amongst the faithful (witness all those so willing to go the mats here – for goodness sake, Alex went to the mats here 4 years ago arguing that Obama’s “executive experience” far outclassed McCains’…), but without the the support of the non-politicized middle, where does the radical base to go to get the One re-elected?

    Tell us tales of how evil GWBush or RReagan was – tell us how great WJClinton was… All that is fine and dandy for history courses at Radcliff or Dartmouth. What the masses of uncouth americans yearn for a good economy; they yearn to know how Washington – and all its pseudo-Keynesian philosophers will get the blink out of the way to allow them to live the life that they chose to live

  17. ponce says:

    Tell us tales of how evil GWBush or RReagan was…

    If I was about to go head to head against Barack Obama with a mumbling clod like Rick Perry in my corner, I’d be whining too.

    Don’t worry, it will be quick and relatively painless, just like it was for Bob Dole and his supporters.

  18. anjin-san says:

    What the masses of uncouth americans yearn for a good economy

    Go to http://www.google.com and search for “economic collapse – September 2008”, then get back to us.

    they yearn to know how Washington – and all its pseudo-Keynesian philosophers will get the blink out of the way to allow them to live the life that they chose to live

    I am curious, how do you want to live, and how is “Washington” preventing you from doing it? That is a serious question.

    I am living pretty much exactly how I want to live, and no one stands in my way but me. Luckily, I have for the most part figured out how to get out of my own way. Took a lot of years, but I got there.

    I have a news flash for anyone who is not where they want to be in life. Invest in a mirror. There is a pretty good chance you will see the person responsible for your failures in it.

  19. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Scott F.: If the republic will be best served by two sane parties, where will you find the other one? Granted, the Dems are no Tea Party, but sane is a stretch, IMO.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    I’ve never suggested that our current President was elected by his radical base.

    Nor did I claim that you did…but if you are going to continue referring to his base as “radical”, then you don’t have much business whining about how Teabaggers are treated…

    What the masses of uncouth americans yearn for a good economy…

    As if Republicans have some magical way of returning us to a good economy…

  21. ponce says:

    As if Republicans have some magical way of returning us to a good economy…

    Don’t be silly, of course they do.

    1. Tax cuts for the rich.
    2. Service cuts for the poor.

  22. Terrye says:

    This is not the 80s or 90s. I don’t think Obama is going to see the kind of rebound Reagan did. And I don’t think he is going to have a Ross Perot out there to help him win a second term with a plurality.

  23. Scott F. says:

    @A voice from another precinct:

    Sane is a pretty low bar and right now the Democrats meet it and the Republicans don’t. National default if you don’t get your way? Please.

  24. Wayne says:

    I will start off by restated all polls should be taken with a grain of salt and people will find in them what they want.

    That said IMO the more relevant number would be strongly approved vs. strongly disapprove. Many of the one without a strong opinion can easily change their opinion. Shoot most people don’t even pay that much attention to politics until election year if even then.

    One thing with Reagan was that he was hammer by the press. He use the year of campaigning to inform the public who he was and what he was doing. Obama has had the press prop him up. He has given speech on top of speech. Interview on top of interview.
    He doesn’t have the same potential of informing the public as Reagan did or even Clinton.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    And I don’t think he is going to have a Ross Perot out there to help him win a second term…

    He won’t need a Ross Perot if he has a Rick Perry or a Sarah Palin out there…