Obama, Gallup and the Purple Crayon: Worst Approval Ratings Ever?

Gallup’s daily tracking poll released last Monday, showing that Obama’s approval had dipped to 47%, “a new low for his administration to date” provoked a strong rebuke from White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs. He likened the Gallup poll to an EKG, or something a child might draw (because EKG’s and stick pictures are almost indistinguishable, I guess, and of equal significance):  “I’m sure a six-year-old with a Crayon could do something not unlike that. I don’t put a lot of stake in, never have, in the EKG that is daily Gallup trend. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the meaninglessness of it.”

Gibbs’ response is understandable, but misdirected (and not particularly effective, I might add).  He is right, of course, to dismiss daily movements based on the average of a three-day tracking poll as signifying anything more than statistical noise.  Moreover, the fact that Obama’s rating is the lowest in Gallup polling history for this juncture is somewhat misleading; in fact, both Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan checked in at almost similar percentages at the same point in their presidency, as the following chart shows:

President (from highest to lowest in approval) Approval Rating at About 10 months
George W. Bush 86
John F. Kennedy 77
Lyndon Johnson 74
George H. W. Bush 71
Dwight Eisenhower 69
Richard Nixon 59
Jimmy Carter 57
Bill Clinton 52
Gerald Ford 52
Ronald Reagan 49
Harry Truman 49
Barack Obama 47

I’m not sure of the significance of a daily tracking poll that shows perhaps a 1-2% difference between Obama’s approval rating and that of some previous presidents at this juncture in their presidency.

But what Gibbs ignores is the unmistakable fact that Obama’s approval rating has exhibited a steady decline since he took office.  Two composite trackers – one by Pollster.Com and the other by RealClearPolitics – clearly show the long-term downward trends.  The virtue of these polls is that they aggregate several different individual polls, thus dampening the house effects exhibited by any single polling company.  The latest Real Clear Politics composite shows Obama’s approval ratings exhibiting an almost steady decline, so that today “…Obama has … reached an all-time low approval rating in the RCP National Average at 48.9%.”  Of the 7 polls (not counting  the two daily tracking polls) used by RealClearPolitics for their composite poll, 6 recorded all time lows for Obama in their latest results, with only Fox News showing an increase in his approval during the last month.

As you can see, Pollster.com shows a similar trend here:

Predictably, right-wing bloggers and even ostensibly neutral news pundits interpreted the latest results as further evidence that Obama’s influence is eroding.   At Pollster.com, David Winston opined: “Simply put, if a Presidential job approval is below 50%, a governing majority coalition does not exist and without a governing majority, controversial policies like health care and cap and trade are relegated to the uphill climb of minority status….:   Winston warned that if Obama’s disapproval ratings should exceed his approval ratings, his presidency would be seriously compromised.  And, in fact, that is precisely what has happened in several recent polls that show more Americans disapproving of Obama’s job performance than approving, although he still retains a slight overall advantage in popularity when all polls are aggregated.

Even usually sober-minded political scientists like Larry Sabato expressed alarm at the historical significance of Obama’s declining approval rates:  “President Obama has reason to be concerned about his ratings. Even in tough times, presidents have usually been able to stay above the critical 50 percent mark in the first year, when the public is most inclined to give the new incumbent the benefit of the doubt.”  (Source here).

What these comments all have in common is the assumption that approval ratings are in some sense a measure of a president’s “political capital”; that they serve as a resource upon which presidents can draw to use in negotiations with Congress, much as you or I might withdraw money from our bank account, and therefore it is bad news when popularity declines, particularly below the 50% mark.  The more popular the president, goes the argument, the more leverage he has, because he can “take his case to the people” to overcome congressional obstinacy.  The view is captured nicely in this line from the usually reliable Christian Science Monitor: “Poll numbers bounce around, affected by events in the country and the world. But they do provide a rough guide to the clout a president has in getting his legislative program through Congress.”

The problem with this perspective is that it is wrong. In fact, study after political science study has shown that once you control for the partisan and ideological composition of Congress, a president’s poll numbers have almost no impact on his ability to get his legislation through Congress.   I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: members of Congress are not oblivious to the President’s national standing, but they are far more concerned with what their own constituents think about a particular piece of legislation, such as health care, than they are about the President’s overall approval ratings.

Presidents should be glad about this, because of a second dirty secret regarding polling numbers: presidents have almost no control over them.  Rather than a useful reflection of the president’s effectiveness in office, they are driven instead by the public’s more general assessment of how the country is doing.  In this regard, Obama’s declining support is driven primarily by the convergence of two factors: the artificially high numbers at the start of his presidency characteristic of the presidential honeymoon – a honeymoon that was initially stronger than average because of the historic symbolism of his election – and the on-going economic recession.  One year into Obama’s presidency many voters, fairly or not, now view the recession as “his”, notwithstanding the fact that he is no more responsible for the sluggish economy than was his predecessor. As presidents dating back to FDR have discovered, they largely lack the tools to do much more than mitigate some of the worst aspects of the economic cycle.

Not surprisingly, given the severity of this recession, Obama’s loss of popular support is the second steepest decline in the post-FDR modern era through Sept. 1, according to Charles Franklin’s calculations using Gallup poll data (if I get a chance I’ll update Franklin’s figures through Dec. 30):

And while Obama’s decline is relatively steeper than that of most other modern presidents (again using Gallup poll data), it is not drastically different from the patterns of approval for recent presidents, including his two immediate predecessors:

These caveats notwithstanding, the media’s fascination with approval ratings is understandable: it is “hard” news that seems impervious to “spin”, and which appears to measure an important component of a President’s sources of power.  And there is some evidence, which I will explore in a later post, that approval ratings are a useful predictor of the president’s party’s performance in the midterm elections.  But it is far too early to extrapolate from Obama’s current ratings to project midterm results in 2010.  And, of course, history shows that a president’s ratings during his first year in office doesn’t say much about where his approval will stand a year hence.

In the meantime, brace yourself for a steady dose of stories about how Obama’s shrinking approval ratings reveal a loss of political clout, particularly when his disapproval consistently exceeds his approval.  We saw the same misguided analysis by pundits during the Bush presidency.  The reality, however, is that when it comes to influencing Congress, approval ratings are scarcely more meaningful than the wonderful pictures Harold drew with his purple crayon:

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