Articles and Analysis


False hopes on Obama approval

Topics: Approval Ratings , Barack Obama , health care , Health Care Reform

A New York Times story on President Obama's approval rating yesterday included this unpersuasive claim:

If Congress passes Mr. Obama's health care bill, the White House -- and many independent analysts -- believe that the accomplishment of a signature campaign promise is likely to push the president's approval ratings back up.

I can see why the White House might make this argument to wavering Senate moderates, but who are these unnamed "independent analysts" and what are they talking about? I don't know any reason to expect that Obama will receive a significant approval boost from passage of health care.

Let's consider the last three presidents who passed a "signature campaign promise" during their first year in office -- Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. (I'm omitting George H.W. Bush, who didn't have much of a domestic agenda.)

-Congress passed Reagan's budget on June 25, 1981 and passed his tax bill on July 29, 1981. Here are his approval ratings from Gallup from that period:

[Budget passes June 25]
[Tax bill passes July 29]

Do you see an approval boost? I don't.

-Bill Clinton signed his deficit reduction bill on August 10, 1993 (the major votes were on August 5 and 6). You can argue about whether this was a "signature campaign promise" (Clinton increased his focus on the deficit after taking office), but it was the major legislative accomplishment of his first year in office and there's no evidence he received a boost from it:

[Bill passes August 5-6]
8/8-10/9344 %
[Bill signed August 10]

-Finally, there's George W. Bush, who passed his tax cut bill on May 26, 2001 and signed it into law on June 7, 2001 -- as with the previous two examples, there was no discernable bump in approval (I'm omitting the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill, but the story is the same there):

5/7-9/01 53%
[Bill passes May 26, signed June 7]
6/8-10/01 55%
6/11-17/01 55%
6/28-7/1/01 52%
7/10-11/01 50%

The larger story here is that many journalists and political operatives have a wildly exaggerated view of the president's ability to change public opinion outside of a foreign policy context (as with the Obama's health care speech). The reality is that Obama, like his predecessors, is largely at the mercy of the economy and external events unless a new war or foreign policy crisis emerges.

Update 11/25 8:50 PM: Via a reader comment below, here's another useful comparison -- LBJ's approval numbers when Medicare was enacted (it passed Congress July 27-28, 1965, and was signed into law on July 30):

5/13-18/65 70%
6/4-9/65 69%
6/24-29/65 66%
7/16-21/65 66%
[Bill passes July 27-28, signed July 30]
8/5-10/65 65%
8/27-9/1/65 64%

The same conclusion applies.

(Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com)



There are the kitchen variety "signature" bills which you list and then there is health care. The passage of healthcare reform is as much greater lift and much more historic than the examples you cite.

Your argument is, I believe, an example of the fallacy of false equivalency. Perhaps we will get the opportunity to see.



Try LBJ and medicare...

9/16-21/65 Gallup 63 24 13 1571
8/27-9/1/65 Gallup 64 25 11 1586
8/5-10/65 Gallup 65 22 12 1599
7/16-21/65 Gallup 66 20 14 2407
6/24-29/65 Gallup 66 21 13 2534
6/4-9/65 Gallup 69 19 12 1648

He signed medicare on 7/30/65... That to me seems like a "signature" bill and is healthcare.


I don't think Medicare in 1965 is a valid analogy to today. Nobody really knew what it would mean at that time and it also only affected people over 65, which at that time was probably only about 10-11% of the population.

A comparison look that might be useful would be Clinton's failure to pass health care reform. I don't have the numbers, but my recollection is that the failure totally tanked his numbers and cost the Democrats the huge losses in Congress the following year.

If that is true, then it is logical to assume that passage of health care reform will indeed be a big boost to Obama, and failure to pass something will cause a massive drop in approval.



You have any academic sources on that because everything I know/read tends to disagree with that. Truman (for instance) was at the signing and many of the arguments used against it are being used against it today. I dare it is the best comparison of passing a key piece of legislation for which polling is available.

Here's a post from the Wash Post on it http://voices.washingtonpost.com/behind-the-numbers/2009/07/health_care_reform_circa_1965.html

Those numbers are from February 65 (6 months before the plan was passed) when a full 81% knew (or believed they knew) enough of medicare to form an opinion.

Working with adults, which I'm guessing that Harris poll used in Feb of 65, the same number of people didn't know their stance on the Democratic (or Obama or public) plan in June/July of this year (4-6 months ago).

I would think they did have an idea of what that plan was going to be. They knew it as an extension of social security.

And as for it "not" having an effect on the population, I'd say most people hope to grow old and would want something when they do.

Just mho. No comparison is perfect.


When I said most people didn't know what Medicare would mean at that time, I didn't mean that the public didn't know what was in the bill. You're correct that people saw it as an extension of Social Security. But nobody could know how big it would become.

Also, it still only affected 10-11% of the population and, yes, while people do get old, someone 25 years old is not really thinking, "Gee, this is great for me because in 40 years the Government will pay for my health insurance."

I know people today who are 63 and can't think ahead just two years when they'll become eligible for Medicare. They're still worrying how to pay their current $500 a month private health insurance scam cost.

In contrast, today's legislation is going to immediately affect that 25-year old, as well as every other American of every age.

Medicare is no comparison at all.



We're clearly going to have to disagree on this one because LBJ was ALL about MASSIVE government expansion. The great society was, for better or worst, an attempt to make government bring all Americans up to a minimum standard of living (eliminating poverty for instance). The reforms put forth today fail in comparison to the overarching goals of it. Granted medicare was one part of the great society, but the point still stands in what it was supposed to forecast (more government) had it not been for other outside forces such as Vietnam.

I'm pretty sure Americans knew what they were getting with the Great Society (a massive expansion of government). If they didn't, then they clearly were not paying attention to the campaign.

Also keep in mind, the FICA tax increase seen with the passage of medicare immediately impacted all Americans. Medicare didn't impact in the same way a public option or whatever happens will, but keep in mind plenty of Americans will have the same insurance they always had and of the the 30 million helped by House legislation, only 6 million would choose the public option (the others would choose private insurance).


We'll agree to disagree on this one. But I wanted to make a couple of points. First, it is certainly true that FICA deductions started for everyone after Medicare kicked in. However, I remember my paycheck at that time, and the Medicare deduction from my twice monthly paycheck was about 63 cents. Also, that didn't occur until a year or so after the bill was passed and we're talking about approval ratings immediately upon signing.

Second, the Great Society involved far more than Medicare or the War on Poverty. It was also the landmark Civil Rights legislation, which is the one I remember most fondly. And it was even also Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Program. All of those occurred over a 2-year period from the end of 1963 to about 1966. So the polling effect on any one or two or more of those events would be hard to measure. Just my opinion that I don't think LBJ is really a good comparison for today's circumstance.


Chris G:

I don't think this analysis fairly represents the logic behind the expectation that passing healthcare reform will boost approval ratings. It's not that one expects legislative achievement to reliably boost approval ratings, as might be revealed in a correlation-based (and single-factor) analysis such as yours.

Perhaps the *cause* of the decline in Obama's approval may be in part linked with a perceived failure in healthcare reform, and the opportunity it has given conservative leaders to inspire fear among independent voters. So the questions are (1) is this true, and if so how strong is the link, and (2) how would passing healthcare reform address this factor.

Of the cases cited in the analysis, Clinton's is the only one in which a president had low approval ratings that could have conceivably been boosted by a legislative achievment addressing the causes for the decline. But of course, here Clinton's low approval was not due to some failure to address the deficit (and resulting bad press) but other issues such as don't ask don't tell. In contrast, Reagan already had relatively high approval, and its unclear whether anyone not supportive of him before could have changed opinion just because he slashed taxes.



An alternative theory: victory won't cause Obama's ratings to improve, but defeat will cause them to decline because then his supporters will be almost as turned-off as his opponents.


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.