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How long will voters wait?

It is a question on the lips of almost every commentator: “When will voters stop being patient and start blaming President Obama for the country’s economic woes?”

In fact, the question is slightly mis-specified. A variety of studies over a couple of decades demonstrate that relatively few voters assign primary blame for economic circumstances to any president. Even in the midst of the last election, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked voters who they thought was most responsible for our economic problems — and just 25 percent named President Bush.

Of course, as I have argued here many times, economic performance is a key factor in presidential approval and electoral outcomes, including in our most recent election. However, that does not mean voters directly attribute responsibility for the economy to the president — they just vote as if they do.

So the real question we should be asking is, “When will negative assessments of a worsening economy begin to affect President Obama’s standing with the American people?”

It is a difficult question to answer. Polls suggest voters understand that economic improvement will be a long time coming. Over two-thirds told CBS/New York Times pollsters that they expect the recession to last for two years or more. Similarly, nearly three-quarters believe it will take the new president more than two years to make real progress on fixing the economy.

However, as regular readers may recall, people are only mediocre predictors of their own future behavior. They may think they will wait years before allowing the bad economy to affect their evaluations of President Obama, but they may not really know.

Unfortunately, we do not have much history from which to glean a clear understanding of the dynamics at play — few presidents have dealt with recessions so clearly associated with their predecessor’s policies — but a somewhat analogous example may be instructive.

Tied to a deepening recession at home and foreign policy failures in Iran and Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter left office with an approval rating quite similar to that which George Bush sported last month. Despite being dubbed the “Great Communicator,” Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, did not engender nearly as much hope and optimism as our current president, but by February/March 1981, Reagan’s approval rating hovered in the 55-60 percent range. At the end of March, having survived an assassination attempt with strong will and good humor, his approval rating shot up to 67 percent, about where President Obama begins. Though he campaigned on economic recovery, Reagan was unable to push his plan through Congress until August, despite support from two-thirds of the public.

Nonetheless, by the end of his first year in office, the “Carter” recession had taken a toll on Reagan as his approval rating slumped below 50 percent. At the time of his first midterm election, Reagan’s approval was in the low 40s—a drop of nearly 15 points from his pre-assassination-attempt highs.

Generalizing from one case is as dangerous as can be, especially when so many of the circumstances are different. However, the history at least hints that we may be over-interpreting voters’ patience. While this is clearly Bush’s recession, within a year or so President Obama may nonetheless feel its political weight.

A critical electoral difference, however, is in the timing. Reagan’s recession hit its worst point in November 1982, precisely during his first midterm, in which the GOP lost 26 House seats. Forecasters say our current recession is likely to end well before Election Day 2010, and indeed the economy may well be on the upswing, creating a dramatically different political environment for Democrats in President Obama’s first midterm from what Republicans faced in 1982.

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.