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Obama: Worst First Year Ratings Ever?

Topics: Health Care Reform , independents , job approval , Obama

The merits of this weekend's health care reform legislation can be debated elsewhere; our focus here is on its potential political impact. And while the process was more protracted and contentious than many predicted, there is little doubt that this was a tremendous political achievement for President Obama and the Democrats. Our assumption is that the White House's political apparatus hopes that this will stop the President's job approval rating erosion. We aren't sure that it will.

Our sense is that passing the Senate health care reform bill is better for President Obama and the Democrats than not passing anything. Obama's overall job approval (48% approve) and health care approval (51% disapprove) numbers have both fallen in step with declining public support for the health care plan (currently at 36% favor, 49% oppose). The generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party's candidate they plan to vote for in the 2010 House races, has actually favored the Republican candidate in nine of 14 publicly-released polls since the beginning of November (the current average is 44% Republican, 42% Democrat).

The generic ballot and presidential approval rating are the two best general predictors of mid-term shifts in control of Congress, so this should trouble Democratic leaders who touted a permanent, Democratic realignment of the electorate 12 months ago.

Let's tackle one of these and provide some historical context for the President's current approval ratings.

Obama's First Year: The Worst Ever?

Karl Rove's latest WSJ editorial points out that Obama's overall job approval has fallen to "the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year." This is true, but only to a point: Obama's current approval is within a cluster that has Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all within the margin of error at the same point in their first terms. In 1994, President Clinton and the Democrats lost a net of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the "Contract with America" tsunami. In 1982, President Reagan and the GOP lost a net of 27 seats in the House and one in the Senate. Of course, both Clinton and Reagan then went on to win re-election.

The below table shows the approval ratings for Obama and the previous six presidents at the same point in their presidency, approximately 325 days after their inauguration to their first term. (All approval numbers are from the Gallup Poll except for George H.W. Bush's approval among independents, which was taken from a CBS News poll that November.)

dec 22 chart 1.jpg

The most striking thing here is Obama's diapproval number. While Ford, Reagan and Clinton had similar approval ratings, only Obama has a nearly one-to-one ratio of approval to disapproval. This might be a testament to the polarization of the contemporary electorate, or it just might be that Obama's policies have engendered greater disapproval at a faster rate than his predecessors'.

For a pretty cool experience (or at least as cool as polling trend data can be), click the graphic below for a link to the interactive USA Today chart that allows you to compare Gallup's historic presidential approval data.

usa today.jpg

Independents

While Democrats are still quite supportive of Obama, he is really struggling with independent voters. In January, approximately 70% of independents approved of Obama's job performance. It would have been unrealistic for him to keep approval among independents at that level, but a 25-point drop is significant.

Below is a table that compares overall Presidential approval ratings with approval ratings among Independents for the last six Presidents. As you'd expect, the two figures usually move closely together. The spread between Obama's overall and independent approval ratings is currently on the high side of the typical range. Keep a close watch on Obama's job approval number with independents: if it drops into the low 40's that would suggest a catastrophic collapse of support that could be a precursor to a major swing toward the GOP in 2010.

dec 22 chart 2.jpg

Obama's Approval Rating: What Happens Now?

This is the big question. Any assessment of the current situation would suggest that Obama is due for at least a slight ratings bump with the passage of health care reform. It is our belief, however, that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the bill; this is why support for comprehensive health care reform has plummeted in recent months. While many voters oppose the bill because they disike it from a policy perspective, many others oppose it because they simply don't understand it.

Therefore, for Obama to realize some kind of January bump from health care reform's eventual passage, he will need to explain to the American public a) what the bill does and b) why it will be a good thing for them personally. Perhaps then, as is typical after these protracted legislative battles are won by a President and his party, Obama might get a modest (three-to-five point) bounce in his approval rating. But that is far from a certainty. Today, Quinnipiac University released another poll that showed a majority of voters disapprove of the Senate's health care plan. It is going to take some work to convince voters that this bill is a good thing. Not impossible, but increasingly difficult.

After that, to predict the direction of Obama's approval it would be best to watch the topline unemployment number, which has recently been a good leading indicator of Obama's approval rating.

 

Comments
Farleftandproud:

This report on Obama is unfair, unjust and the public has gone very hard on him, but there is just so much you can get done when you come into the white house with two unfinished wards, a health care crisis and more than any president since Abraham Lincoln has faced entering office, it is not surprising his approval is 51 percent. It went up two points today. I am confident that Obama will be an outstanding president.

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Farleftandproud:

Reagan's approval was low because of the recession in 1981 but as we all know, Reagan won 49 of 50 states. It would be virtually impossible for Obama to win that many states, however I believe his Keynesian policies of the current administration will improve the economy quicker than Reagan's did. Those higher expectations will make Obama a greater target if the economy doesn't improve. If the economy doesn't improve, my predicition is that unemployment will be high all over the industrialized world. France, Italy and Ireland have unemployment rates near 10 percent and the latter two have unemployment rates over 12 percent.

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@farleft, maybe it would have been wise to win the wars first, and save some of this other social engineering for later. It's Rahm's crisis-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste strategy that's cost Obama dearly.

Remember the Blagojevich trial starts in June with 500 hours of telephone wire-tap recordings of key Obama aids talking politics in Chicagoeze. Watch the polls slide further with this kind of chat uncut over the net.

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al of arabia:

FL&P: The poll is "unfair"? It might help a wee bit if you would point out something - anything - about the poll itself that would indicate the results are skewed. Whining about something not being fair is what 5 year olds do to their parents.

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Farleftandproud:

These wars are wars that cannot be won. Perhaps terrorists can be captured and killed. I seriously think by next Spring the only leader who will be affected by the Blagojevich trial will be Blagojevich himself. Maybe Roland Burris will, but had Obama been involved with this, I can't believe the GOP wouldn't have gotten their independent counsel together.

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Farleftandproud:

This is just a poll and I guess all is fair in love, war and politics. Obama is a big boy and he knows a lot of things that none of us know. 11 months in office is difficult for any president who is facing a war debt, a job crisis as well as extensive health care costs. I was opposed to IRaq from the beginning and it was a waste of money. I admire the men and women who served and they deserve the best compensation for fighting for our country but it was the wrong war. Afghanistan was ignored, and Bush even said once that many Al'Queda operatives in Afghanistan had been defeated. After early 2003, Afghanistan became the forgotten war. I don't understand what in the world happened to the American people to be brainwashed by the Bush/Cheney lies.

Progressives may be a minority in America but I can honestly say that the ideas that came from the previous administration set us back many years. I am not saying that all libertarian or conservative ideas are bad. North Dakota has had some great job training programs at low costs to the taxpayers and they have been a success; New Hampshire has the no sales tax, bringing wealthy boston area people to shop there frequently. The retail market in NH is doing well while most other states they are not. The dark side of conservatism is spending money we don't have; Bush put Iraq on a credit card and now Obama is paying the price for it. In contrast, when Clinton worked with the House Republicans they gave him an extremely hard time and made things hellish for him, and I am excluding his affairs. He did work hard to balance the budget and we had a surplus. Unfortunately when conservatives got too much power after 2001 and using Iraq as a scapegoat for defeating terrorism, that is when things went wrong.

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TruthHurts:

I'm still waiting for someone to tackle the "elephant in the room" regarding Obama's historically high disapproval rating...In that area, Obama's facing a burden not applied to other Presidents: The "black tax"...The "fall" in Obama's ratings are overwhelmingly concentrated amongst white voters...Why? One strong contribution that's hard to "poll" is based on a given fact: before Obama, all US Presidents were white males. The "black tax" is not a "racist" proposition. It's based on the fact that Obama secured 40+ % of the white vote based on "hope". Many of these voters were "proud" to vote for Obama...The flip-side here is that many of these same voters never worked for a company that had a black CEO...Most never had a "black governor" or a "black pastor"..Nationally, there's only been 3 blacks ELECTED as Senators since reconstruction!..While logic dictates that Obama can be a strong President; "history" offers us no reassurance. People "believe" that Obama would be a good President but they don't have a reservoir of experience to justify having someone who's NOT a white male, sitting as the "leader of the free world"..With each tick up on unemployment. With each accusation of "illegitimacy", that "hope" turns quickly to dispair for those who experience "leadership" wrapped in a different package. The "black tax" is the idea that a minority or a woman (Nancy Pelosi's "negatives" are higher than Tom Delay's EVER were) has to clearly DEMONSTRATE success because there's no understood experience for whites (or blacks!)to provide that benefit of doubt. The "good news" is that Obama CAN dillute this challenge as time passes and people realize that he's not going to screw up the US any more than any of his predecessors. The difference in Obama's higher negatives are driven by doubts as "fear" ("I feel like I'm losing my country!") challenges "hope".

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Aaron_in_TX:

I don't think racism is the problem with Obama's approval, it's mainly because things haven't changed significantly with him in office and some changes have been for the worse. Although racism may be a contributor to his disapproval.

Republicans will deny this to the Nth degree, but it's there. There are many republicans in my family and some of them are racist. These are people that would never have voted democrat in the first place, so that's why I don't think it matters. None of the democrats I know are racist; incidentally many of them *are* minorities.

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Aaron_in_TX:

Most of the news I've heard about healthcare for the past few months has been bad. I'd like to see statistics on the amount of negative stories on it, but the only time I remember people NOT complaining about one thing or the other was after Obama's speech, after the House passed it, and the last day or two since the Senate looks like it's going to pass it. Otherwise it was all about how much the bill sucks.

I happen to think eliminating pre-existing conditions and giving subsidies to those who can't afford health insurance is a good thing, but I guess I'm in the minority on that. I give to 3 different charities related to health care and significantly (by my income standards) to my local hospital's charitable foundation. If everyone did that we wouldn't need the government to step in, but clearly as a society we have failed to provide adequate health care to everyone. I find that a disgrace. The government will not do as good a job but something needs to be done.

Simply getting the issue off the table will help because people will stop arguing about it. I didn't think it would be quite this polarizing, but healthcare has become much like abortion in its divisiveness.

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masanf:

Amazing how every comment above this considers almost every possibility for why Obama has low approval ratings, except one: he is doing a lousy job.

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