The Threatening Thirties
Obama’s approval rating slide and what happened to his predecessors
December 5th, 2013,
For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama finds his aggregate approval rating hovering right at 40%. In some polls, he has already fallen below it: According to Gallup, the president’s approval dropped to 39% three times in November. Currently, RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of approval polls finds the president’s approval right at 40.1% while HuffPost Pollster shows 41.5%. Both show a consistent downward trend over the last few months.
While Gallup’s three-day tracking had the president’s approval at 41% on Wednesday, it has been lower. In August 2011, Obama’s approval rating in Gallup dropped to 38%, remaining around 40% until late October. This previous encounter with the “dirty thirties” buoyed Republican hopes that Obama could be beaten in the 2012 presidential election. But as events proved (for the umpteenth time), a year in politics is a long time.
Looking back at Gallup’s approval polls since World War II, Obama’s predecessors have a varied history in their tangles with sub-40% approval ratings, with some recovering, some stagnating and others falling further into the disapproval abyss. And as the 2014 midterm elections approach, it is worth noting that only two presidents in the Gallup era have had approval ratings below 40% at the time of a federal midterm: George W. Bush in 2006 and Harry Truman in both 1946 and 1950. The electoral trouble their poor numbers inflicted on their parties is detailed in Table 1.
Table 1: Presidential party performance in midterms when president has sub-40% approval rating
Note: Approval ratings listed are result from last Gallup poll prior to midterm election.
Sources: Gallup and Vital Statistics on American Politics 2011-2012.
While the limited sample size makes it pointless to average these three election results, it’s striking that in both 1950 and 2006 the president’s party lost six seats in the U.S. Senate, precisely the net gain Republicans must achieve in 2014 to take control of the upper chamber. If Obama’s approval rating continues to plunge further, it will bode poorly for Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) chances of retaining the Senate majority leader post in the 114th Congress.
Below is a brief history of modern presidents’ ups and downs once their approval fell below 40%.
The history of sub-40% approval ratings
Like Obama, Harry Truman slid below 40% prior to his reelection bid, landing at 33% less than two months before the 1946 midterms. Truman rebounded, winning the 1948 election; at the time of his inauguration in January 1949, his approval was close to 70%. That was fleeting, and his approval dropped below 40% permanently in December 1950, falling to 24% in the period of time after he removed General Douglas MacArthur from command in Korea in April 1951. In February 1952, Truman’s approval reached its nadir, 22%, and upon leaving office, his approval sat at 32%.
It took another 15 years before a president’s approval rating fell below 40%. Neither Dwight Eisenhower (partially, at least, because of his military hero status) or John F. Kennedy (because of his abbreviated time in office) came close to the black mark. But the troubles at home and in Vietnam pushed Lyndon Johnson under 40% in August 1967. After a brief recovery, Johnson’s approval fell to 36% in March 1968 in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Once he announced that he would not accept the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ’s approval jumped back up to 50% in April 1968. Still, his approval rating fell to a low of 35% in August 1968.
Before the Watergate scandal took hold, Richard Nixon never saw an approval rating lower than 48%. But after winning a massive landslide in the 1972 election, Nixon’s presidency unraveled with further revelations regarding Watergate. In 1973, Nixon’s approval rating fell below 40%, and by the time he resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974, it was at 24%, nearly equal to Truman’s all-time low of 22%.
Gerald Ford, Nixon’s unelected successor, entered office with a 71% approval rating. But his honeymoon proved to be very short, beginning with his pardon of Nixon after just one month in office. However, Ford’s approval rating didn’t fall below 40% until January 1975, remaining in sub-40% territory for the next few months due in large part to a struggling economy. But Ford’s rating improved sharply to 52% by the end of June 1975, perhaps on account of his military action in the Mayaguez Incident. After that, Ford’s approval generally remained in the 40s, with a 39% approval blip in December 1975.
During Jimmy Carter’s time in office, the U.S. experienced assorted economic, energy and international crises. Carter’s approval rating first slid below 40% in the summer of 1978 but recovered to top 50% by the end of the year. It then fell to 28% in the summer of 1979 during the energy crisis of that year, prompting Carter’s (in)famous “malaise” speech (though he never used that word). Carter’s approval remained in the low 30s until early November 1979, when the hostage crisis in Iran boosted Carter’s approval rating back above 50% as a result of the “rally ‘round the flag” effect. However, as the hostage crisis wore on, Carter’s approval fell back below 40% for good in May 1980.
Ronald Reagan only saw a brief sub-40% period in early 1983, falling to 35% in late January thanks largely to the country’s economic struggles. But the economy recovered, lifting Reagan all the way to a 59% landslide reelection in 1984. Showing that timing can be everything in politics, Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, saw his approval rating drop just as his reelection year rolled around. He had been in solid shape until then, but not once in 1992 did Bush touch 50%. The last Gallup job approval survey taken before the 1992 election, in mid-October, had him at just 34% — and he received 37.5% on Election Day.
Bill Clinton’s timing was much better. Clinton recorded ratings in the 30s just twice, in June 1993 and September 1994. These low early ratings helped to oust dozens of fellow Democrats in the 1994 midterms. But revived by GOP-inspired government shutdowns, Clinton’s rating never fell below 50% again after February 1996, even during the trials of the Lewinsky scandal.
Partially because of 9/11, George W. Bush had the most bipolar presidency since the dawn of presidential approval polling. In his first term, the younger Bush spent a mere four months below 50%, never lower than 46%. Conversely, discounting a few points in the first half of 2005, Bush was never above 50% for the entirety of the second term. After May 2007, he never got above 37% approval, falling at times into the 20s.
Besides Eisenhower and Kennedy, every other post-World War II president has experienced a period of sub-40% approval ratings. But as the record shows, the lengths and depths of those slides have varied immensely. Some, like Reagan and Clinton, saw their public perceptions recover markedly after temporarily dropping into the 30th percentile in approval. However, other presidents, like Truman and George W. Bush, never bounced back. They left office discredited in the court of public opinion, although that court’s rulings are never final and are quite changeable over time. Sure enough, Truman’s reputation has greatly improved in the six decades since he exited the White House, and Bush’s ratings have begun to warm somewhat.
As for Obama, he was the fourth president to win reelection despite falling into the 30s in the Gallup poll during his first term, joining Truman, Reagan and Clinton on that list. But unlike the latter two, Obama has again found himself in the 30s, with potentially serious consequences for his party in the U.S. Senate and House as the 2014 midterms approach.