Why Obama’s Approval Ratings Languish

I don’t normally focus too much attention on one survey, but when it helps illuminate a broader (and not uncontroversial) argument I’ve made it becomes too good to pass up.

Readers will recall that in yesterday’s post I noted that the likely explanation for President Obama’s recent sputtering approval ratings in the face of an incrementally improving economy is a spate of bad news from overseas. The results of this McClatchy-Marist poll, in the field August 4-7, are consistent with my analysis.  It shows Obama’s approval rating languishing at 40%, the second lowest of his presidency, and the lowest it has fallen in three years. (He was at 39% approval in a September 2011 McClatchy poll.)

More importantly, in the poll Obama gets dismal ratings for his handling of foreign policy, with only 33% approving of his performance in this area, compared to 61% who disapprove. That’s a decline of 13% in approval since the start of this year, and a decline of 9% since April. As I suggested yesterday, that nosedive appears to be driven most recently by the public’s perception of events in the Mideast and in the Ukraine, as well as Iraq. Only 30% of respondents approve the President’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict, and only 32% give Obama favorable marks for his dealing with Russia regarding the Ukraine struggle. (McClatchy didn’t ask about the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq, but I am confident that is also contributing to Obama’s loss of support.) In comparison, while his handling of the economy gets relatively low marks, at 39% approving, that level has remained relatively consistent for over a year now. So it appears that foreign policy is keeping Obama’s polling numbers low for now.

As you might expect in an era of deep party sorting, there is a pronounced partisan divide in Obama’s approval numbers with Democrats showing far greater support for his handling of issues, including foreign policy, than do Republicans. However, what is most telling is his declining support among independents who, as I noted in my previous post, are a growing portion of the electorate, and who were a key component of Obama’s electoral coalition in 2008.  As of today, however, Obama’s support among this voting bloc has seen a precipitous decline.

Fully 45% of respondents to the McClatchy survey now categorize themselves as independent, compared to 28% who self-identify as Democrat and 25% Republican. Among independents, 18% say they lean Republican, while 12% consider themselves “pure”, with no partisan leanings in either direction. We know from previous studies that “leaners” tend to act on those predispositions; when given a choice of two candidates, most will back the one from the party to which they lean. If this holds true to form, the survey suggests an electorate that is almost evenly divided between the two parties, with the independents likely to hold the balance of power heading into the 2012 midterms.

What is driving down Obama’s support among independents? Again, consistent with my post yesterday, Obama is not being helped by events overseas; McClatchy finds that only 31% of independents approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. The number is lower among independents – at 24% approval – for both his handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and the Ukraine conflict. More worrisome, it appears Obama’s foreign policy woes may affect the midterm results come November. When asked if “November’s election were held today, which party’s candidate are you more likely to vote for in your district?”, Republicans lead on this generic ballot question by 43-38% over Democrats. In April, by contrast, Democrats were up by 48-42%, so it has been nearly a 10% net change in support across three months. During this period the indicators measuring the health of the economy have not changed much or have indicated a slight improvement, but the salience of foreign policy has increased, and not to the President’s benefit.

It can be dangerous to put too much stock into one poll. Events overseas remain fluid, leaving the possibility that a reversal in fortune could redound to Obama’s – and Democrats’ – benefit. Moreover, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Obama’s low approval on voters’ choices come November. Fully 51% of respondents to the McClatchy poll say their opinion of Obama won’t be a factor in their vote during the midterms, including 61% of independents who say it won’t matter. On the other hand, 41% of independents say “their impression of Obama” will make them more likely to vote Republican come November, compared to 22% who say it will make them more likely to vote Democratic. Obama’s standing within the public, particularly among independents, is one factor – but not the only one – that will affect the midterm results.

My broader point, however, is to reiterate my claim in yesterday’s post regarding why Obama’s poll numbers remain sluggish. In this era of social media and partisan-driven talking points, it is easy to blame some combination of polarization, cable news, and racial animus for his languishing approval ratings. The evidence, however, points to a more prosaic culprit: things aren’t going well overseas, and when that happens, the President, fair or not, takes the blame.

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.

IS, Noah, Watergate and Woodchucks

This week’s Sunday Shorts:

President Obama’s decision to engage in an open-ended air campaign designed to prevent the militant group Islamic State (IS) from expanding its territorial hold in Iraq has, predictably, been lambasted by critics on the Left and the Right. Progressives see it as a potential first step down the slippery slope of greater military involvement and a violation of Obama’s campaign pledge for a full disengagement of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Conservatives argue that it is too little, too late because it does nothing to prevent the Sunni extremist group from solidifying its territorial hold and using it as a base to destabilize the Mideast and, eventually, launch terrorist attacks against the United States. Lost in the storm of partisan handwringing, however, is any mention that Obama’s current policy roughly approximates the two “no fly zones” the U.S. and allies established after the first Gulf War ended in 1992, and which they enforced until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those two no-fly zones were designed to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by Saddam’s Hussein’s forces.  The difference is that the Islamic State lacks Hussein’s air capacity, but the intended effect is the same. And it was criticized as well, and for similar reasons. It is a reminder that the situational context is often more important than partisan principles when it comes to determining a president’s foreign policy choices. And it raises the distinct possibility that Obama’s current open-ended policy of targeted air strikes may be in place for a very long time.

In this earlier post, I argued that, without substantial congressional pressure, President Obama has no intention of showing his decisiveness by firing CIA director John Brennan despite Brennan’s admission that the CIA had accessed Senate Intelligence committee files.  Consistent with my argument, pundits are beginning to turn their ire on Congress for failing to apply that pressure.  For conservative pundits in particular, that lack of action is further reason to pursue other avenues to hold the President accountable, such as a legal suit. Whether Congress intends to apply that pressure remains to be seen.  My guess is members of the Senate Intelligence committee led by Senator Dianne Feinstein may barter Brennan’s survival for White House concessions regarding redactions to the Senate report on U.S. interrogation and rendition policies.

Speaking of suing the president, in this previous post I made the argument that the House Republicans’ vote to authorize Speaker Obama to do just that made perfect political sense, even though it was unlikely to gain any traction in the courts. Here’s the reason why:

As you can see by the breakdown in partisan support, Republicans who run on this issue in the upcoming midterms are banking on turnout from their base, while at the same time expecting a lower turnout from the Obama coalition which draws much more heavily on voters less likely to participate in a midterm elections.  So they see suing as a winning political issue.

Meanwhile, Timothy Noah has written an almost entirely speculative piece on whether Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, complete with misleading headline. Noah concludes that he did. To my knowledge, there is no evidence to support Noah’s assertion, with the exception of a claim by Nixon aide Jeb Magruder many years after the fact that he overheard Nixon authorize the bugging of Larry O’Brien’s phone in the Democratic party headquarters. However, this contradicts Magruder’s earlier claims and is not supported by any evidence from tapes or phone records. Indeed, Noah’s assertion seems undermined by the recordings of Nixon discussing the break-in, which on the whole indicate complete puzzlement on his part regarding why anyone would do something so stupid.

So, if there’s no evidence Nixon orchestrated the Watergate break in, this leads to the obvious question: who ordered Noah to write this opinion piece? I am skeptical that he would do something like this on his own. Was it Rachel Maddow? The head of MSNBC? Democratic political operatives trying to use Nixon against the Republicans this fall? Noah is clearly just the fall guy – some enterprising journalist needs to follow the viewers’ clicks trail to see who really benefits here.

Finally, what does it feel like to be President? I imagine it’s often something like this:

woodchuck

Have a great Sunday!

UPDATE 9.45 Monday:  A couple years back Jonathan Bernstein took on the “Did Nixon order the Watergate break in?” question and had pretty much the same reaction then as I did yesterday to Noah’s post:  http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/06/why-dnc.html

 

 

 

A Switch in Time: How Nixon Might Have Survived Watergate

On Jan. 27, 1969, less than a week into the Nixon presidency, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman relayed the following request from President Nixon to White House aide and former Time magazine executive editor James Keogh: “The President is most anxious to bring in an official White House historian to make sure that we maintain on a current basis an accurate record of the work of this administration.” Nixon even had a person in mind for the position: Professor Ernest May, a historian at Harvard University who had served on the Lindsay transition task force. More generally, Nixon sought someone “who has outstanding intellectual ability to analyze everything as it is happening in historical perspective and keep an accurate record… .” Here is the full memo from Haldeman to Keogh.

haldeman historian.1.27.69
On February 10, evidently after canvassing various White House aides regarding Nixon’s proposal, Keogh responded with a four-page memo to the President that began, “There are some serious questions involved in the recruitment of a White House historian. The first is the ultimate: Should there be a staff historian, as such, in the White House?” Would the President want an outsider sitting in during key meetings? Keogh’s answer, shown here at the bottom of the first page of his memo, was: “I would say he should not, for his presence surely would tend to inhibit what the President and others might say and do. And so the historian’s presence could have a negative effect not only on the Presidency but also on history.”

keogh historian 1

In addition to inhibiting conversation, Keogh warned that “any established historian that we might bring on would have very definite ideas about his own freedom of point of view.” That might mean a desire to prove “his credentials to his colleagues in the profession by being critical even if that meant doing so only for the sake of being critical.” Keogh also warned that “Loyalty is another problem” – someone who initially expressed support for the President might, over time and in reaction to events, change his views.

In seekng a “court historian” Nixon may have had in mind some counterpart to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian who served on JFK’s White House staff, and who used his position to write A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a not uncritical but generally quite positive account of JFK’s presidency. But Keogh had other examples in mind, telling Nixon: “The recent track record on all this is not encouraging. Eric Goldman, professor of history at Princeton, was brought into the White House by Lyndon Johnson. He has just produced the Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which can only be described as an anti-Johnson book.”

Keogh noted that he had discussed Nixon’s request with his immediate team of White House aides: “The consensus in this group is that this Administration should not bring in a historian as such. This position is based on the feeling that the risks are too high and the potential for positive results too low.” Rather than a court historian, Keogh suggested instead that aides be assigned to keep detailed notes of meetings, “recording the color, the tone, the asides for the general Administration record.” For more intimate conferences with the President “I see only one process. The people involved should as often as possible record their own impressions… .This also suggests that the President himself should, as often as possible, dictate his own thoughts and impressions… on tape or on paper…and on some kind of more or less regular schedule.”

We now know, of course, that Nixon did Keogh one better. In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration’s proceedings, he had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called “smoking gun” tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate.  But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record.  For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House “court historian”.

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon’s in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity.  Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes.  But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: “I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape.”  Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially “conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings.”

“From the very beginning,” Nixon writes in his memoirs, “I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.”  Little did he know how prescient that statement was.  No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president’s time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration’s presidential records).  Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device.  But he did not.

For want of a switch, he lost the presidency.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.