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Obama outperforms the economy

Whatever obstacles President Obama will face as voters head to the polls in November 2012 — and at this moment the magnitude of those obstacles remains uncertain at best — he will enjoy at least one striking advantage. Americans want to like Barack Obama, holding him in higher regard than other presidents who faced economic straits less severe than our own. 

We somehow never tire of saying this is the worst recession since the Great Depression — and it is. Gross domestic product has shrunk 12.8 percent, the biggest slump in that indicator since the Depression (which was much worse, with GDP declining by almost 27 percent and unemployment reaching 25 percent). By contrast, the recession that afflicted Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981-82 resulted in a peak level of unemployment similar to the one we experienced recently, but GDP only declined by a far lesser 2.7 percent. In the Bush recession of the early ’90s, unemployment peaked at a far lower level and GDP shrank by just 1.4 percent. The most recent recession also lasted longer than any other, engulfing the economy for 18 months, during which 8 million people lost their jobs.

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Those who see the not-so-hidden hand of the economy at work in politics, particularly in the movement of indicators like presidential job approval, would expect the worst recession since the Great Depression would have produced the worst presidential approval ratings since the ’30s.

It hasn’t.

As just noted, President Reagan’s recession was not quite as awful as the one President Obama inherited, yet Obama’s lowest weekly approval rating (45 percent) is 10 points higher than Reagan’s. 

George W. Bush left office a year after the most recent recession began, but before we felt the full consequences of his polices. Nonetheless, Bush’s approval rating settled at a level some 20 points lower than Obama ever reached. Bush’s father fared almost as poorly — his approval rating sank to just 29 percent in the far less severe recession that presaged his defeat. 

Jimmy Carter served during another, less atrocious, recession, and it helped push his approval rating as low as 28 percent.

Of course, each of these presidents faced other trials and tribulations. The most recent President Bush angered voters by misleading us into a costly war under false pretenses; President Carter presided during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran’s capture of American hostages and gasoline rationing. These real-world circumstances drove down their approval ratings. 

Obama’s tenure has not been devoid of other influences — witness the GOP’s unending campaign of vilification over healthcare and his other accomplishments. Nevertheless, despite those ferocious assaults, and despite the worst recession since the Great Depression, this president’s approval rating has never sunk to the level of Reagan, Carter or the two Bushes. That’s a truly remarkable fact, and one deserving of greater attention.

It indicates that President Obama maintains a deep connection with the American people — a connection strong enough to withstand the worst economy in almost 80 years and a connection stronger than that of, say, the legendary Great Communicator (Reagan), whose approval rating was substantially lower in the wake of a less severe downturn.

Second, it suggests that Americans still harbor great hope for a president who promised hope and change. 

Finally, it bodes reasonably well for the president’s reelection. As Gallup editor Frank Newport observed, the “magic” approval number when it comes to reelecting presidents is about 48 percent. Presidents who move toward Election Day with approval ratings above that level tend to win, while those who fall below it lose. Despite the horrific economy, President Obama’s approval rating hovers just below that magic number. Even a slight improvement in the economy should lift him above 48 percent, putting him in a strong position for reelection. 


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.