Is Obama the Worst President of the Modern Era?

I’ve received several requests to post something about this Quinnipiac survey of American adults released yesterday in which  33% of respondents say Barack Obama is the worst president among the 12 who have served since World War II. That tops the list of worst presidents, beating even former president George W. Bush, who 28% chose as the worst. Ronald Reagan was chosen as the best president among the 12 by 35% of those polled. If the results weren’t bad enough for Obama, 45% of respondents say America would be better off if Republican Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, compared to 38% who believe the country would be worse off. (The survey, which called both land lines and cell phones, was in the field from June 24 – 30, and has a margin of +/- 2.6 percentage points.)

The results have received a great deal of play among pundits on the interwebs, so it is probably useful to put them in some perspective. To begin, the survey asks respondents to name the best and the worst among the dozen post-World War II presidents – it does not give respondents a chance to evaluate these presidents in an absolute sense by, for example, rating presidents on a scale from outstanding to below average, which is what Gallup does (more on Gallup below).  So finding that Obama is the worst of the post-World War II lot doesn’t necessarily tell us what respondents think of him outside a comparative perspective. How bad is bad? Note also that 8% of respondents rate him as the best president in this era, which places him 4th in this category, behind only Reagan, Clinton (18%), and JFK (15%).

Still, it is hard to view these results as a ringing endorsement of the Obama presidency, so it worth understanding what seems to be driving the response. To begin, Quinnipiac breaks down their respondents into four age groups: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 and older. As Phillip Bump notes here, there is a distinct age-related pattern to the responses, with Obama’s support generally decreasing as one moves up the age categories. (In contrast, G. W. Bush’s support shows the opposite age-related trend; younger respondents think less highly of him.) Here is the distribution of responses to the question asking to name the worst president:

obama1Note also that Obama does better (less badly) among Democrats who are much more likely to cite G. W. Bush or Nixon as the worst president. Interestingly, there’s not much gap at all between men and women, with pluralities of both choosing Obama as the worst president among the 12.

So, what seems to be driving these results? One clue is provided by looking at comparable polls, such as Gallup’s, which asks respondents to categorize presidents on a five-point scale from Outstanding to Below Average. If we combine the two highest and two lowest categories, and subtract the difference, the two presidents who show the biggest net positive approval gap are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – the same two who top Quinnipiac’s “best president” category. (Note that John F. Kennedy is not on this Gallup list, but he had the biggest positive approval gap in a 2013 Gallup survey which went in the field on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.)

Moreover, that positive gap has been growing larger for both presidents since they were first included on Gallup’s survey asking the public to evaluate the most recent presidents. (I’ll show some data in my next post showing these trends.) Based on this question, Obama ranks 4th among presidents according to the net positive approval gap.

One is tempted, of course, to dismiss any poll that rates Bill Clinton, one of only two presidents to be impeached, so favorably. Elsewhere I’ve discussed at length some of the difficulties with asking the public, and academics for that matter, to rate the presidents.  Still, I wouldn’t dismiss the Quinnipiac or Gallup results entirely. Note that both Reagan and Clinton are remembered for presiding during a period of sustained economic growth. Indeed, some of Clinton’s highest approval ratings came during the Lewinsky impeachment proceedings, in part because the public placed much more importance on the state of the economy than they did the state of Clinton’s zipper. Fairly or not (and longtime readers know I think it is unfair), we tend to hold the president accountable for the state of the economy as it is (and not how it might have been under different circumstances). This is particularly true as one becomes increasingly invested in the economy. In the Quinnipiac poll, fully 45% of respondents cited the economy, jobs or the budget as the most important issue facing the country, with another 6% citing health care costs. This is by far the most highly cited category. In contrast, only 3% cited “war” or “terrorism” and only 1% cited “class inequality”, “lack of religion”, or “family values”.  Moreover, it is the older respondents who have the more negative view toward the economy which likely explains their more pessimistic attitude toward Obama’s performance.

obama4It bears repeating that the issues the pundits tell us matter (see the Hobby Lobby court decision!) don’t really resonate with most voters, particularly when it comes to evaluating presidential performance. As my students have heard me say repeatedly, the President more than any other elected official embodies national sovereignty. As such, his fate is closely intertwined with how the public views the state of the nation. To date, Obama has presided over a middling economic recovery, one characterized by incremental growth and sustained unemployment. Yes, Tim Geithner may be correct that in bailing out the banks and pushing a stimulus bill through Congress Obama averted a deeper economic calamity. But the fact remains that Americans are dissatisfied with the pace of economic growth during the Obama presidency and that dissatisfaction is largely responsible for the results of the Quinnipiac poll.

obama 2

Of course, as I’ve noted on many occasions, asking people to evaluate a president while he is in office is problematic. I suspect many respondents to the Quinnipiac poll put far more emphasis on the here and now when rating presidents rather than on past circumstances, such as the stagflation that characterized Carter’s presidency, for instance. We will be better positioned to see how Obama is rated only when the public gets some distance from his presidency. Unless those economic numbers improve dramatically, however, I suspect Obama will not be chosen by very many respondents as the best president in the modern era. In the end, when it comes to presidential evaluations or presidential elections, it remains the fundamentals, stupid.

 

Sunday Shorts: Abramson, Pew and the Fabulous Baker Boy

Howard Baker, the three-term Republican Senator from Tennessee, died last week at age 88. He was remembered, and deservedly so, as “the great conciliator” who in his eight years as the Republican Senate leader (including four as majority leader) forged a reputation as a moderate (despite a rather conservative voting record) who was able to work both sides of the political aisle. But perhaps his most important service to the nation took place after he left the Senate. In early 1987, the Reagan administration was in full damage control as it struggled to deal with political fallout from the Iran-contra affair. As most of you know, despite a public policy of never negotiating with terrorists, Reagan had in fact secretly authorized the trading of arms to Iranian “moderates” in return for their help in negotiating the release of Americans held hostage by various Mideast terrorist factions. Moreover, overpayments from those sales had, evidently without Reagan’s knowledge, been used to support the Nicaraguan contras in their struggle against the Soviet-backed Sandinista government despite a congressional ban on U.S. aid to these “freedom fighters”.

Somewhat belatedly, and only after prodding from his wife Nancy, Reagan agreed to replace his chief of staff Don Regan, under whose watch the Iran-contra affair occurred, with Baker who, at the time, was widely perceived to be a front-runner for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. It took a personal plea from Reagan to convince the reluctant Baker to take the job in the national interest. But as Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus recount in their excellent book Landslide, Baker did so while keenly aware of a whispering campaign that Reagan had begun to show signs of mental deterioration. It was only after directly observing Reagan handling a variety of presidential responsibilities that Baker concluded the rumors were untrue. He went on to orchestrate the resurrection of Reagan’s presidency, even at the expense of his own presidential aspirations. In Reagan biographer Lou Cannon’s words, “More than any single person, it was Howard Baker who brought Reagan back.” That may have been his greatest service to the country.

Jill Abramson, the deposed New York Times executive editor, has landed on her feet with a lecturer position in the English department at Harvard University. I had hoped to do a separate post on the circumstance surrounding her firing, but more important events took precedent. As you will recall, Abramson was let go amid conflicting reports regarding whether, and to what degree, gender played a role in her firings. In the media hullabaloo that followed, I thought one important point was underplayed: whether or not gender mattered in Abramson’s firing, the fact that it became an issue in the ensuing discussion suggests we have a way to go before there is true work-place parity. The reality is that women are fired from high-profile management positions all the time. Until those decisions are discussed solely on the basis of the woman’s own (in)competence, it’s hard to argue that we have true gender equality.

Finally, Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina tries once again to set the record straight regarding what the Pew Report report really says regarding whether Americans are becoming increasingly polarized. This relatively short interview (listen here) is worth a listen – pay particular attention to what happens when you ask a moderate public to choose between two relatively polarized options. Note also that increasing ideological consistency is not evidence of increasing polarization. The bottom line? There is no evidence of increasing ideological polarization in the public at large in the last three decades – contrary to what many pundits have said based on the Pew survey.

Have a great Sunday!

Why Obama’s Approval Is Bush League

Three new national polls  came out recently showing President Obama’s approval ratings falling to the low 40% range, which puts them at or near the lowest of his presidency. The drop in support came in the wake of a series of bad news, including the VA scandal, the ongoing IRS controversy and most recently, the unexpected surge by the Isis terrorists in Iraq. This drop led to the predictable overreaction from the punditocracy.  NBC’s Chuck Todd declared that the numbers “are a disaster for the President.”  Similarly, Ron Fournier tweeted: getting dangerously close to failed presidency territory.”

However, while the numbers aren’t great news for Obama, it is useful to put them in their historical context. First, as the PlumLine’s Greg Sargent points out, this is not new polling territory for Obama; his approval has dropped this low in some polls in previous months. And, while it is typical for pundits like Todd to attribute changes in approval ratings to particular events, such as the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, research shows that presidential approval is also driven by what we might call structural factors. One of these is time in office. In his seminal work on the American Presidency, political scientist Richard Neustadt noted that “there is a certain rhythm in the modern presidency.” While Neustadt referred primarily to a president’s learning curve while in office, his observation pertains to how the public perceives the President, as gauged in approval polls, as well. Thus Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley, in their study of the factors influencing presidential approval, suggest that once you control for events, approval ratings following a set dynamic that reflects the length of time a president has been in office. In this regard, it is interesting to compare Obama’s approval with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, at similar times in their presidencies. Martina Berger put together the following comparison based only on Gallup Poll surveys:

obama-bush approval

We can see that five years into their presidencies, their approval ratings follow similar downward trajectories – indeed, if one removes the impact of the Iraq war on Bush’s approval, the trend lines are almost identical throughout their presidencies. This partly reflects, I think, the natural rhythms in approval associated with a president’s time in office in the modern context. But it also is an indication of just how thoroughly Americans are sorted along party lines. As I’ve noted elsewhere, presidents Bush and Obama are the two most polarizing presidents in the modern era in terms of the partisan division in their levels of support – as this table shows, their sources of support are almost mirror images:

polarizingWe should be careful not to read this poll as evidence that Americans are highly polarized, however. Instead, it reflects the fact that their choices – in this case, whether to approve or disapprove of a president – are perceived to be polarized. Even a closely divided, mostly moderate public – which I have argued elsewhere is the best characterization of the current distribution of Americans’ public opinion – will appear to be divided if only given two extreme choices in a survey. Put another way, we would expect to get these polling results even if most Americans place themselves close to the middle of the ideological spectrum, with perhaps a slight lean in either direction.

The bottom line is that we should not be surprised by the downward trajectory of Obama’s public support.  Nor should we overreact to the latest number. It likely reflects the interaction of a highly-sorted electorate and the rhythm of approval associated with a president’s time in office. This is not to say that Obama’s approval will necessarily track Bush’s for the remainder of the President’s time in office, although it might. It does suggest, however, that it is driven by factors that are largely out of the President’s control. And, as I will discuss in posts to come, it does not bode all that well for Democrat’s electoral prospects in the upcoming midterms.

Sorry, But We Are Still Not Polarized

Stanford political science Professor Morris Fiorina, on whose research I relied heavily in writing my Politico piece analyzing the widely publicized results of the recent Pew survey on polarization  has written his own take on the subject in this Monkey Cage blog post.

In contrast to much of the pundits’ read of the Pew results (but consistent with my read of its survey data), Fiorina does not believe the general public is becoming more polarized. He writes, “In sum, we can argue about the size of the political center in the United States since the answer depends on various ways of measuring it, but whichever measure one chooses, the conclusion is the same: the country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” Instead, he argues that what Pew shows is a process of party sorting in which partisanship, ideology and issue positions “go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. Issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, now they reinforce it.” The result is that parties are much more ideologically homogeneous than they were half a century ago. This is something I also discussed in the Politico piece, and therefore I won’t elaborate here, but it is this process that those who claim to see evidence of polarization are often describing.

But Fiorina makes two additional and very important observations regarding how some of the media commentary indicates a misreading of the Pew Report. The first is that many pundits have misconstrued the growth in ideological consistency among a portion of the public as evidence of increased ideological polarization. But they are not the same. As I noted in the Politico piece, Pew has utilized the same set of 10 questions, with a dichotomous response option (e.g., “homosexuality should be accepted by society” or “homosexuality should be discouraged by society”), to create their liberal-conservative index. The most recent survey results show a doubling, to 21%, in the number of respondents expressing either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across these 10 questions.

As Fiorina points out, however, this doesn’t mean Americans’ views have become more extreme on these issues – indeed, we can’t know that based on this set of questions and available responses.  Moreover, we do know from other survey data that many Americans’ views on key issues aren’t easily captured by a simple dichotomous response set. So, rather than an increase in polarization, what Pew has found in terms of these 10 questions is an increase in the ideological consistency of some respondents’ anwers. By the same token – and the Pew authors make this clear – this does not mean the roughly 80% who express a combination of liberal and conservative views based on these 10 questions are all moderates. Instead, they may hold very extreme, but ideologically inconsistent, views on a number of issues. (As I noted in my Politico piece, the evidence that Americans are largely moderate comes from other survey data, such as the ANES surveys.)

In defense of pundits who misinterpreted this portion of the Pew Report, the robust publicity (and still continuing!) rollout pushed by Pew , as well as some of the Report’s language seemed to suggest their results indicate a more divided United States. But the Pew data does not show that American is becoming increasingly polarized – only that it is better sorted along party lines and that there has been an increase in ideological consistency.

Fiorina also addresses a second result in the Pew survey that has become a matter of some debate: whether political “polarization” is asymmetrical – that is, whether the “growing” extremism – read, partisan sorting – is situated largely within one side of the ideological spectrum (Republican or Democrat). In keeping with Jack Goodman’s admonition to keep these posts short, however, I’ll deal with this issue in tomorrow’s post.

For now, however, the key point is this: despite claims to the contrary, the Pew study does not “offer overwhelming evidence of a sharp increase in polarization and in tribal political characterizations over the past two decades, but especially in the past few years.”  Instead, it provides further evidence of party sorting. And, contrary to what some have argued, the difference between sorting and polarization is not simply academic hairsplitting. Instead, the two describe completely different phenomena. Polarization refers to a process in which we see movement among Americans away from the moderate center toward the ideological extremes. Party sorting, in contrast, suggests a general stability in the distribution of Americans’ political views with, if other survey data is to be believed, most Americans remaining situated closer to the ideological middle. Deciding what is actually occurring is not simply a “nerd” fight among academic geeks. Instead, the answer has real world ramifications. For example, we might worry less about the increase in congressional polarization if we thought it simply mimicked the evolving views of a polarizing public. But, if Fiorina is right, the polarization in Congress is not a reflection of a growing ideologically divide within the general public. And that should be cause for concern.

Sunday Shorts: Why Is This President Smiling, and What Have Millennials Really Learned?

Jack Goodman is constantly urging me to write more frequent, but shorter blog posts. In response, I’m introducing a new Sunday blog format, provisionally titled Sunday Shorts, that will touch briefly on political topics that I could not fit in during my longer posts during the week. This week’s short topics include Watergate, what explains Millennials’ growing distrust of the Presidency and why George H. W. Bush is a very happy 90-year old.

Let’s begin with Watergate. On the 40th anniversary of its original publication, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic work of investigative journalism All the President’s Men is being reissued with an afterword by the two authors. Both appeared on Candy Crowley’s State of the Union show this morning and had some choice words for the state of investigative journalism today. Simply put, they believe news organizations put too much time and money into shows that specialize in political punditry, and not enough into traditional on-the-ground reporting. Moreover, in this internet-dominated 24-7 news cycle, journalists face increasing pressure to get something out on a daily, even hourly basis, rather than taking the time to gather the facts in order to tell the full story. To illustrate, they cite the Benghazi and IRS missing e-mail controversies as stories that would benefit from some traditional investigative journalism, rather than the daily back-and-forth evidence-free accusations that have dominated discourse on this topic. Immediately after their appearance, Crowley – showing not a trace of irony – hosted a round table of four pundits who traded accusations about who is to blame about the IRS missing e-mails.

Former Midd student and political science major Addison DiSesa (who is gainfully employed in communications) pointed me in the direction of Ezra Klein’s Vox video piece claiming that Millennials (that would be Addy’s generation) are “getting smarter about politics.”  As evidence, Klein notes that Millennials’ “trust in the presidency has plummeted during [Obama's] two terms.” This, Klein suggests, is a good thing because it shows Millennials are catching on that the presidency is an inherently weak office. As Addy, a veteran of my presidency course, can surely attest, Klein’s observation regarding the power of the presidency is Basic Neustadt 101.  But I’m not sure Millennials’ growing skepticism of the presidency is a sign of increased understanding of the limits of presidential power so much as it is disappointment in what Obama has been able to accomplish. Put another way, it would not surprise me to see Millennials’ fooled again, given the right presidential candidate and political context.

we all know how this ends

That’s what honeymoons are for! Later this week I’ll post a brief analysis of Obama’s falling approval ratings. You might be surprised which previous president’s approval ratings closely mimic the current president’s.

Speaking of previous presidents, why is George H. W. Bush smiling? Probably because when he’s not jumping out of airplanes, he’s surrounding himself with agreeable guests. Plus he wears cool socks.

This, I submit, is a just reward for arguably the best president not to win reelection!

Have a great Sunday (and keep those comments and suggestions coming)!