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Presidential popularity dynamics

It has all the makings of real drama — an enormously talented and extremely popular president finds his public support sapped by overreaching and a series of alleged missteps. A neat story, written by many, with just one big hole — it’s not quite true.

President Barack Obama began his term with approval ratings just above average for the start of a first term, but more importantly, under the circumstances, his decline was inevitable, with two core factors accounting for his fall to what is still a fairly popular place.

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Most important is the recession the president inherited from George W. Bush. Political economists first plotted day-by-day fluctuations in presidential approval against economic changes 40 years ago and found a substantial correlation. Since then, charting this relationship using various economic indicators and a variety of statistical methods has become a cottage industry engendering academic debates large and small, but the core finding remains unchallenged — the state of the economy has a direct and significant impact on the popularity of a president and on the outcome of elections.

Notwithstanding the president’s own exceptional talents, and those of his team, a simple graph reveals that Obama got exactly the vote one would have expected given the state of the economy. It is hardly surprising, then, that the economy has had the predictable effect on his post-election standing.

Of course, at the outset of a first term, still glowing from victory and embodying the hopes of the nation, a new president gets a honeymoon, a temporary exemption from what, in normal times, are iron laws of politics. But from the moment Obama took office, his popularity persisted on borrowed time, with the atrocious economy acting as a magnet, pulling his approval rating down as the counterforce provided by the inaugural aura, weakened.

While Americans still blame Bush for the recession, after nine months, voters cannot help but act as if the current chief executive bears at least some responsibility. Other presidents have suffered similar fates, only to recover in dramatic fashion.

Bill Clinton came to office with a 58 percent approval rating on the heels of another Bush recession. By June, Gallup had pegged Clinton’s approval rating at 37 percent before he rebounded to 58 percent in six months after that.

In the spring of 1981, 60 percent approved of Ronald Reagan’s performance. By March of 1982, nine months into a recession, his approval was 16-17 points lower — almost exactly the level of decline Obama has suffered over the last nine months. The “Great Communicator” took two years to climb back to the mid-50s.

Economic troubles were bound to weigh down Obama’s approval ratings; the only question was how long it would take. Back in January, when the president was riding high, I predicted to clients that he would be below 50 percent by December because of the Bush recession. He is not there yet, but I have a few months.

Obama has also been hurt by doing what he was elected to do — make change. Action begets opposition, while doing nothing in office enables a president to remain popular. Ronald Reagan’s signature tax cuts were enacted in August of 1981, and by September his approval rating was down from 60 percent to 52 — though cutting taxes is rarely unpopular.

Lyndon Johnson went into the Senate battle over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with an approval rating of 80 percent. By the time he signed the bill, in July, he was down 14 points.

Yet, despite the recession, despite a ferocious Republican assault and despite his efforts to bring about change, in the latest Gallup poll, the president retains the support of a clear majority, with 52 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving of his performance.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.