Tag Archives: approval

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.


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.