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Obama’s Weakness in Historical Context

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On a variety of indicators, President Obama has far more in common with incumbent presidents who lost their bid for reelection than with those who won.

President Obama is in deep political trouble. While that's hardly news—the president's approval rating sits at 40 percent in the latest Gallup poll—the picture is much bleaker than that figure would suggest. Comparing President Obama to other incumbent presidents at this point in the campaign on a variety of indicators shows how grim the picture is for the 44th president.

Just 11 percent of respondents say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country in Gallup’s most recent poll. Only Jimmy Carter had numbers like this: In November 1979, 19 percent reported they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country.

Bowman Graph 1

In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, 20 percent say the country is heading in the right direction, while 77 percent think it’s on the wrong track. Again, Carter had similar numbers (16 percent right direction, 77 percent wrong track). In early 1996, Bill Clinton was also about where Obama is today (21 percent right direction, 77 percent wrong track).

Bowman Graph 2

Job approval numbers don’t look good for President Obama, either. Only Jimmy Carter had a lower rating.

Bowman Graph 3

The University of Michigan's Consumer Confidence Index looks particularly bleak for the president. Consumer confidence in August 2011 was 55.7. This is by far the lowest rating ever at this point in recent presidents' tenures.

Bowman Graph 4

Gallup regularly asks Americans if they think they are financially better off than they were a year ago. In the latest asking, only 28 percent think they are better off, 45 percent worse off, and 26 percent say they are about the same. Both Carter (30 percent better off) and George H.W. Bush (26 percent better off) had similarly poor marks on this question.

In 1983, Ronald Regan had to combat negative assessments of people’s financial situations that are similar to Obama’s marks today. In June of 1983, only 28 percent described themselves as financially better off, 39 percent worse off, and 32 percent the same. But the economy improved significantly by the time the election rolled around. Unemployment declined from 10.4 percent in January 1983 to 7.4 percent in October of 1984.

Bowman Graph 5

An incumbent president can overcome negative evaluations of the country as a whole (like Clinton and “wrong track” polling) or poor assessments of people’s financial situation (like Reagan and “financially better off” attitudes). But overcoming all of these negative assessments would be unprecedented for an incumbent president since pollsters regularly began asking these questions in 1971. Right now, President Obama has far more in common with incumbent presidents who lost their bid for reelection than with the winners.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Andrew Rugg is a research associate.

FURTHER READING: Bowman and Rugg examine public opinion in “Americans and the Terrorism Threat 10 Years After 9/11,” “President Obama at 50—Comparing 1961 and 2011,” “The GOP's Secret Weapon: Flower Power,” “Political Report, July/August 2011,” and “The Deep Roots of American Patriotism.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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