Why Obama’s Approval Is Bush League, Take Two

Why are President Obama’s approval ratings so low?

The latest aggregate polling at Pollster.com shows Obama’s approval rating at only 43% which, as the Pollster.com graph indicates, is pretty much right where it has been all this year. At RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm, Obama’s approval stands at 41%.

Obama approval

This is a puzzle, because as political scientist Seth Masket points out, the economy is actually improving, albeit not in historically robust fashion, and presidential approval ratings usually track economic performance. However, Obama does not seem to be reaping any reward in his approval ratings from an improving economy.  Instead, his approval ratings appear stagnant. Why is this the case?

Masket rejects two frequently cited suspects: “First, let’s dismiss the simple answers: It’s not because of racism or polarization. Obama’s approval ratings have been very stable for most of his term, usually hovering within a few points of 45 percent. But he came into office with approval ratings near 70 percent, even though it’s hard to imagine any of the respondents not knowing his race. And the country wasn’t really much less polarized in 2009 than it is today.”

Instead the answer, Masket suggests, is that perceptions regarding the economy among those polled have yet to catch up with the reality of sustained growth: “Basically, because the good news is relatively new. The American economy is still emerging from the shadow of the worst crash since the Great Depression, and the recovery up until very recently has been rather paltry. Remember, GDP growth in the first quarter of this year was actually negative. And even consistently strong growth takes a while to affect voters’ impressions of the economy and the political system.”

I think Masket is on to part of the explanation, but that there are additional factors at work that are deflating Obama’s support. Let us first consider the impact of polarization, or what is more properly described as party sorting. As the two parties have become more uniformly sorted by ideology – with liberals increasingly calling themselves Democrats, and conservatives identifying as Republican – presidential approval ratings are more likely to break down along partisan lines. In this respect, Obama’s partisan support in approval ratings is almost the mirror image of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush’s.


For Masket, however, party sorting can’t explain Obama’s persistently low ratings because, as the chart above shows, even as Republican support for Obama may fall, rising Democratic support should compensate. Moreover, the country is no better sorted now than it was when Obama had approval ratings hovering above 70%. However, this does not take into account shifting levels of approval among independents. As of today Obama’s approval among independents stands at 33%, a far cry from the 52% margin he won among this group in the 2008 election and even lower than the 45% support independents gave him in 2012. Moreover, polls show that the percent of people self-identifying as independents is growing, with more than 40% classifying themselves as independents at the start of this year compared to 35% when Obama took office.

To explain Obama’s drop in support among independents, it is worth thinking about the factors that influence approval ratings more generally. As I discuss in this previous post, Masket is correct that the economy is certainly a major influence. But two additional factors come into play. One is what I call a structural dynamic associated with the President’s time in office. For example, we know that all presidents start with artificially high approval ratings – the so-called “honeymoon” effect – in which even some who did not vote for the President nonetheless express initial approval of his performance. That explains the 70% approval rating Masket references in the first weeks of the Obama presidency. Invariably this level of support cannot be sustained as political reality sets in.

The second set of factors influencing a president’s approval ratings are significant events which often exert a short-term but measurable impact. For an extreme example, think of George W. Bush and his 90% approval rating after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. On a less extreme level, as Stu Rothenberg suggests, Obama’s approval rating may be suffering from the confluence of a recent series of negative events, particularly in foreign policy. These include the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza and the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine, to name the most prominent. The reason Obama’s approval ratings continue to lag, I think, is because these foreign policy events have tended to overshadow the economy when it comes to evaluating his performance.

The result is that despite an economy that seems to be improving, Obama’s and Bush’s approval ratings are remarkably similar at the same point in their respective presidencies, as this chart put together by Tina Berger and Day Robins indicates. (Note: the x-axis denotes the number of days into the presidency.)

Obama Bush approvalThis does not mean, however, that the two presidents’ approval ratings will continue operating under identical dynamics. Bush’s approval ratings had yet to be impacted by the Great Recession which officially kicked in during December 2007, and which contributed to the steady decline in his approval throughout his presidency. In the long run, if the economy continues its current incremental improvement I would not expect Obama’s approval to continue to track Bush’s decline. But that improvement may not come soon enough for Democrats. In this era of increasingly nationalized elections, midterms are in part viewed as a referendum on the president’s performance. To the extent this holds true this November, Obama’s middling  approval ratings are not likely to boost his party’s electoral fortunes.

22 comments

  1. Matthew completely misses the mark when he deflects race as a factor in Obama’s sagging approval rating. How in the world can he ignore the persistent race-based campaign against the president? The motives for the general public may be pure but they cannot avoid the storm of hateful rhetoric that shapes public opinion.

  2. Hi David,

    Note that it is Seth Masket who I quote as minimizing the impact of race on Obama’s approval ratings. If you read his quote, you can see he downplays race because Obama’s approval ratings earlier in his presidency were 70% or higher despite (because of?) Obama’s race. Masket’s point is why would Obama’s race become more prominent now? More generally, while pundits are quick to cite race as the dominant influence on evaluation of Obama’s performance, it is difficult to tease out the impact of race from the other factors that we know influence approval ratings.

  3. Yes, it is Seth Masket’s quote, and yet you develop your thesis around the point. I read the whole article and so I’m aware of the 70% early ratings point, but this in no way accounts for the Tea Party and heightened hate-inspired efforts by the far right’s regrouping after his 2008 election.

    I am not suggesting that his ratings would remain anywhere close to 70% without the race factor, but the above opinion ignores the information of race.

  4. I think the reason as a far simpler. More people bought into the “Fox news” kool-aid than the “MSNBC” kool-aid. And the Repubs do a far better snow job than the Dems ever will.

  5. David,

    One way to think about your claim that the Tea Party and “heightened hate-inspired efforts” by conservatives have made Obama’s race more salient is to consider the results of the 2012 presidential election. As I’ve talked about in many previous posts, political scientists have developed fundamental-based forecast models that have a decent track record in predicting outcomes. (By fundamentals, these are forecast models that predict election results as a function of the economy.) See, for example: http://wapo.st/1oqxYfu – not all of these are purely fundamentals based, but some are. If race was as big a negative factor as you suggest, we might expect to see Obama’s final popular vote total come in lower than the forecast models that are based on fundamentals only (and which do not include race as a variable). But, in fact, that is not what happened – Obama actually did slightly better in the 2012 popular vote than the fundamentals would predict. Now, that can’t prove that race didn’t matter. It may be that race DID matter, but that it cut both ways both helping and hurting him, or that on the whole it benefited Obama by boosting turnout among some groups. (It may also be the case that the forecast models aren’t very good!) This obviously isn’t the final word on the issue, but as I noted in my previous note, while people feel strongly that race is a contributing factor to Obama’s low approval ratings, demonstrating this is difficult.

  6. Howard,

    An interesting premise that, if true, raises the puzzling question as to WHY Republicans are better at “snow jobs” than are Democrats, and why (as I noted in the previous comment) the Republican efforts did not seem to work in 2012.

  7. Matthew, I would hope those fundamentals would include the fact that there were 4 years of new eligible young voters. Further, there were far more hispanic voters by 2012, whom the GOP managed to alienate even further than in 2008.

    Add to that the fact that GOP has more stridently resisted voting rights post-Obama, there would be incentive for registration among minorities and the young.

    Red herrings like “he’s coming to get our guns,” and “hates America” miss the radar more than do “socialist,” or “Kenyan,” but all ways of fracking any remaining solidarity in our country.

  8. Matthew, re: Howard’s assertion that the GOP snows better

    While all the major outlets are corporate-owned, there is patently more money and less conscience (or perhaps shame) among the Republicans. They remain unembarrassed by Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin, et al. and will put their money where their mouths are.

    Finally, fear is a far more effective coalition-builder than compassion, something the GOP knows well.

  9. David,

    Again, that may be true, but it doesn’t explain why corporations, money, a lack of conscience and all the other factors that you believe advantage Republicans did not seem to come into play in 2012, while apparently they are in play now.

  10. David,

    Romney actually did better among the youth vote (18-29%) than did McCain in 2008, while Obama’s support among this age group dropped 6% from 2008. Turnout among this group in 2012 was up marginally – about 1% – over 2008. Similarly, the Hispanic proportion of the vote was up marginally (about 1%) over 2008, although Obama did increase his share of this vote by 4%.

  11. Reminds of Mark Twain, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

    It doesn’t mean anything that Romney did better than McCain among youth because both did poorly. You seem to be overlooking that there were millions more young voters (and fewer of their grandparents) in play. What this tells me is that, while as a society we are becoming less socially conservative, we are still prey to corporate-owned media, and fear mobilizes people.

    It used to be important to me, too, to imagine that we have arrived, or at least approached, to a post-racial society, but the past 8 years have been among the most racially-charged in the past generation.

  12. Matthew, to your question about Republicans’ advantage seeming not to be in play in 2012, I would argue that it was in play and it carried a unelectable candidate to the brink, and that very right-wing media bubble in which they existed actually convinced Romney that he was a winner until the very end.

    There were astonished that they could not afford that election.

  13. Perhaps, but in fact Romney did slightly worse than the forecast models predicted, at least in the aggregate.

  14. David,

    I know you feel strongly about the racial angle, and I appreciate that passion. But you need to bring some evidence to the table here beyond strongly held beliefs. The fact that there were “millions more young voters in play” doesn’t change the fact that their proportion of the 2012 electorate didn’t much change from 2008, and that Obama’s support slipped among this group across the four years. Now, it may be they were dupes of the “corporate media” – but evidently other voters weren’t duped, since Obama did better overall than one might expect based on the fundamentals. If we are going to continue this conversation, you need to be more specific regarding why some of the population was duped, while others were not, and why. You should probably know that this site is intended to challenge conventional wisdom that lacks empirical evidence, and not to serve as an echo chamber. My students expect as much.

  15. In my previous submission I was going to say something like that: “I know you feel strongly the need to think we are post-racial…”

    But I went with gentle.

  16. More importantly, you went with accurate, since I’ve made no claim that we are in a post-racial society. You, however, have made an empirical claim regarding the importance of race as a factor influencing Obama’s approval ratings and, for the sake of my students, I’m trying to get you to provide the evidence. This is an opportunity for you to take advantage of a teaching moment!

  17. Are my “empirical claims” any less digestible than “It’s not because of racism or polarization… the country wasn’t really much less polarized in 2009 than it is today?”

  18. Yep, very much less digestible, which is what I’m trying to demonstrate. Regarding the myth that we are more polarized than in 2009, see:

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/no-americas-not-divided-108119.html

    http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/2014/06/25/sorry-but-we-are-still-not-polarized/

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/23/americans-have-not-become-more-politically-polarized/

    http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/2014/06/17/a-polarized-america-about-that-pew-report/

    Take some time to read these carefully and let me know what you think. I very much appreciate your willingness to consider the evidence!

  19. I opened your first (politico) link and noticed that it has nothing to do with my “empirical claims” nor your rejoinder. Race goes unmentioned.

    Let’s face it: we’re both making observations from where we sit. For my part, the fastest growing religion in America is far-right Christianity, an audience that Fox, Beck, Limbaugh, et al can take for granted without necessarily being Christian themselves. This religious fervor can only gain traction by discrediting Obama’s faith (since, it seems, his citizenship is off the table). It’s hard these days to use the “N-word” but Muslim, or “Liberation Theology” are certainly in play.

    The far right today are more creative than ever with a growing stack of coded language.

  20. I need to move on for now, but I will concede this. Often the people I engage who want to exculpate the right for racism become gratuitously hostile.

    Thanks for your civility.

  21. David,

    You are right – the links I sent only deal with your comment regarding polarization – not race. I appreciate your willingness to engage, and let’s keep the dialogue going at some future time. Meanwhile, I hope you feel comfortable contributing to the conversation here, particularly when you disagree with what I write. My students learn quite a bit from this type of give and take.

    – Matt

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