The media meme that “Obama is an unpopular president” always has seemed a bit thin. That’s even more the case today: As he gears up for his State of the Union address, the president’s enjoying a rise in approval that puts him right about where Ronald Reagan was at this point in his presidency.
1. Democrats went from large majorities in both congressional chambers at the time of Obama’s 2008 election (Senate 59-41; House 256-178) to definitive minorities today (46-54 and 188-247).
2. Through most of 2014, the president’s approval rating bumped about 10 points below his disapproval ratings.
But those are slivers of reality. Obama also is the first president in more than half a century to win a majority of the popular vote in two elections. In fact, only half of all post-World War II presidents even won re-election. Given the dismal popularity of Nixon and W. Bush as they left office, a case could be made that Obama is one of the four “most popular” of the 12 post-war presidents.
UPDATE JAN. 26: Obama’s most recent Gallup favorability rating is 50-45 — his highest in more than a year and two points above Reagan’s the same point in his presidency.
This all matters because perceptions about popularity will affect this president’s ability to govern alongside a hostile Congress. If he’s viewed as having been rejected by both voters and politicians, his push for cooperation on the budget, his executive actions and his vetoes will be perceived as illegitimate and therefore more difficult to uphold. If he’s seen as the sole leader who’s managed to keep a popular coalition together in a highly partisan era, he’ll be seen as the more legitimate representative of the national will. While there are elements of truth in both perspectives, it seems to me that the second one comports more closely with the actual situation.
Obama’s low ebb came during the 2014 campaign. Although many presidents aren’t popular their sixth year in office, few have seen their party perform as badly as Obama’s did for two consecutive midterms.
During his entire second term, however, Congress has been less popular than ever — currently 60-70 percent underwater in approval ratings. Obama’s approval/disapproval split is currently 1 or 2 points to the negative. So, relative to Congress, one could argue that Obama’s the most popular president in American history!
I’d be locked up if I wrote such words inside the DC Beltway. Even Nate Silver’s myth-busting site, FiveThirtyEight.com, has drunk the “unpopular president Kool-Aid. In a Dec. 11 article headlined “Obama Is Unpopular, And That’s Unlikely To Change,” the site’s Harry Enten wrote: “There’s a good chance that his approval rating won’t rebound very much even if people are more confident in the economy.”
But a few weeks earlier Obama’s job approval scores actually had started a steady rise. According the Gallup Daily Tracking poll, they’ve bumped over the last week between 46 and 48 percent — his best since June 2013. That’s 5-9 points above where they were around the midterm.
The rebound could prove temporary, but not necessarily: Bill Clinton began a steady rise in popularity after Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1994. Obama himself enjoyed a two-year increase after Democrats lost the House in 2010’s Tea Party election.
Obama’s current, modest rebound appears to be driven by the fact that his policies are proving quite successful. We’re economically better off than when he took office; in a flip from ’09, we’re doing much better now than other industrialized nations. The deficit has shrunk by two-thirds since his first year in office. His administration extracted us from two wars. He’s handled foreign crises in ways that kept them from blowing up into disasters. And he’s made significant progress on four enormous domestic crises: health insurance, the banking system, immigration and climate change. Based on that snapshot (and barring any calamities over the next two years), Obama’s popularity seems more likely to accrue than deteriorate.
I’m not arguing Obama’s the next American Idol winner. The nation’s still bitterly divided in a way that it wasn’t during, say, Eisenhower’s days. The truth is that Obama’s popularity has run slightly below average for presidents most of his time in office. Given that he took office just as the economy was nosediving, that shouldn’t be surprising.
What is impressive is that his approval numbers never have dropped very far. Every president since Kennedy has at some point suffered ratings lower than Obama’s lowest, according to Gallup. (I’ve used Gallup throughout this article because it’s the most consistent barometer of presidential job approval, going back through Truman.)
But the “unpopular Obama” narrative is likely to remain in place for some time. Obama himself has contributed to it. At times, and in very consequential ways, he’s shown himself to be politically inept. Losing healthy majorities in both houses of Congress — and then some — really is quite an achievement. His weakness in Congress has affected policy: Many of the president’s own reforms were watered down by compromises that grew out of a weak political position, which in turn dispirited his supporters.
At the same time, we haven’t learned much if we’re still gullible to conventional wisdom cooked up by inside-the-Beltway pundits. If largely white, upper-class journalists — whose main sources are a self-affirming circle of congressional aides, lobbyists and political operatives — parrot a line that the reformist, outsider president is grossly unpopular, perhaps it says more about their biases and sourcing than it does about Obama.