Tag Archives: Quinnipiac

Is Obama the Worst Modern President? Take Two

Conservative pundits such as the Wall St. Journal’s Peggy Noonan continue to cite the recent Quinnipiac poll as evidence that Obama is perhaps the worst president to have served during the last seven decades. For reasons I discussed in my previous post, however, I think we need to resist jumping to that conclusion. First, the Quinnipiac survey asks respondents to choose the best, and the worst, president from among the 12 who have served in the post-World War II era, rather than allowing respondents to rank each of them using the same set of standards. Given the degree of partisan sorting among the general public, (and perhaps the public’s lack of historical memory!) we should not be surprised that the two most recent presidents, Obama and Republican George W. Bush, come in first and second, respectively, in the worst president list, and that in a head-to-head comparison of Bush and Obama, Democrats and Republicans present almost mirror images in their choice of the worst president. (Note: contrary to what Sean Trende seems to suggest,  this is not evidence that we are a 50-50 nation – see my previous posts on party sorting.)

obama5As I noted, however, if we simply ask respondents to evaluate each president based on a fixed set of criteria, as in this Gallup poll, rather than comparing them in order to choose the best or worst, Obama fares much better. So question wording against the backdrop of recent partisan sorting is almost certainly what is driving the Quinnipiac result. It is the same phenomenon that, as I discussed here, makes these two presidents the most polarizing in recent history.

My second concern is that it is simply too early to put much stock in the stability of the public’s evaluation of Obama’s presidency. Opinions regarding a president’s performance can and do change. As evidence, consider the following chart put together by Tina Berger that tracks the net approval difference across time in Gallup polls asking the general public to rate presidents on a five-point scale, from “outstanding” to “poor”. (Tina combined the “outstanding” and “above average” ratings, and the “below average” and “poor ratings”, and subtracted the second total from the first to calculate the net difference.)

approval chart
As you can see, both Reagan and Clinton have seen their net approval ratings climb some 20 points from where they stood in polling that occurred during their presidencies. That climb, I suggested in my last post, largely reflects the public’s growing appreciation of the sustained economic growth during their respective presidencies. Note that Nixon, Carter and George W. Bush all have net negative ratings, while Kennedy’s (based on only two polls) and George H. W. Bush’s are consistently positive (along with Clinton and Reagan). Ford and Carter, meanwhile, straddle the break-even line.

With the exception of Ford, note that none of these presidents’ net favorability ratings today are close to where they began when Gallup polled during their respective presidencies. Some of that fluctuation is driven by new stories that momentarily focus public attention on a particular president, but it also reflects more fundamental opinion change as the presidents’ historical record comes into focus. Given this, is it conceivable that Obama’s net favorability will mimic Reagan and Clinton’s positive trends? To date Gallup has included Obama in only two of these particular polling exercises, so it is too early to draw lasting conclusions regarding where he will end up. But if the unemployment levels continue to fall throughout the last two-plus years of his presidency against the backdrop of an accelerating economic recovery, I would not be surprised to see Obama move squarely back into the positive favorability range. At that point no one – not even the partisan pundits – will be paying much attention to the Quinnipiac poll.


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.