President Obama: Another Carter or Another Reagan?


In his first year in the White House, Barack Obama’s job approval fell about fifteen points. (The source for all poll data analyzed in this article is the Roper Center.) This steep decline was unusual but not unprecedented for a new president. Two others, one from each party, stand out: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. From February of their first year in office (month 2), through February of their second year (month 14), their average approval ratings correlate strongly with Obama’s (Pearson’s r=0.88 and 0.79, respectively).

This parallelism sets one to wondering whether Carter and Reagan mark out alternative futures for Obama’s presidency: continuing decline in approval ending in defeat, as in Carter’s case, or a recovery leading up to reelection, as in Reagan’s. To explore this idea, I proceeded as follows. First, I estimated job approval for all presidents from January 1959 through December 2008 with a multiple regression model consisting of the variables shown in Table 1. The model accounts for over 90% of the variation in approval. (The tight fit is partly an artifact of using lagged approval as one of the predictors, a routine procedure in models of this sort.)

Table 1. Presidential approval ratings: Predictors and effects, 1959-2008


Next, I used the model to generate expected values for Obama’s approval from months 3 to 14, and compared the expected values to the actual values. That is, starting with the actual value of Obama’s approval in February of last year, I entered in the model the monthly values of the variables listed in Table 1 to predict approval through February of this year.

Then, I applied the model to forecast what Obama’s approval is likely to be through the end of 2010 under fairly optimistic economic assumptions. These are that unemployment falls by two percent points in 2010, from 9.7% in January and February to 7.7% in December; that the CPI stays tame, rising no more than 0.20% per month for the rest of the year, the same as in January and February; and that real disposable income grows at the fairly robust rate of 0.35% per month, just shy of twice the average for the entire series. Finally, I compared the forecasts for Obama’s approval to the observed values for Carter and Reagan during the equivalent period in their presidencies.

The results of this exercise are shown in Figure 1. The solid blue line represents Obama’s actual approval through month 14. The dashed blue line has two meanings. Through month 14, it plots the model’s predictions, given the known values of the variables listed in Table 1. Again, the only actual approval value used to make the predictions was that of month 2 (February 2009). Consider how closely the dashed line hugs its solid sister: the mean absolute error of the predictions relative to the actual values of approval is only 1.15 percent points. Beyond month 14, the dashed blue line tracks the projected values of Obama’s approval for the rest of the year, under the aforementioned assumptions about the economy. Note that his approval is expected to bottom out in month 20 (August), at 45.8%; after that it begins to recover, ending the year at 46.4%. At the conclusion of Obama’s second year in the White House, then, his job approval, relative to that of Carter and Reagan, is forecasted to fall somewhere in-between where they were at an equivalent moment in their presidencies.

Comparing Carter and Reagan, note that the former’s approval first hit bottom in month 18. For the next four months, Carter’s approval rose steadily, to 52% in November, before reversing direction the following month. Then, approval continued to slide, sinking into the low 30s in the fall before receiving a temporary “rally ’round the flag” boost at the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis at the end of the year. As the crisis dragged on without resolution, the decline resumed, leading to his rejection at the polls in 1980. By contrast, Reagan’s approval did not bottom out until January (month 25), which lies just outside the chart. However, Reagan recovered rapidly after that, reaching the mid-50s by the end of his third year in the White House. This presaged his 1984 record reelection, when he won all states but one.

Although it would be hazardous to attempt to account for the contrasting electoral fortunes of Carter in 1980 and Reagan in 1984 with variables tapping only one type influence on the electorate, the fact is that in the second half of their respective presidential terms unemployment and inflation rose and real disposable income stagnated under Carter, while, under Reagan, both unemployment and inflation fell, and income grew at a vigorous rate. To be sure, international factors also had something to do with the outcome of both elections, but the contrast in economic performance under the two administrations was marked enough for one to be justified in surmising that it played a determining role in the defeat of one and the victory of the other.

So, whence Obama? Will his approval continue its downward slide for the rest of the year? Absent a shock to the system, that’s what the model projects. Since the president’s popularity correlates with his party’s fortunes at midterm (as Professor Alan Abramowitz has demonstrated), the question is not whether, but how many seats the Democrats will lose in the midterm elections as a consequence. What about after that? Will Obama’s approval rating recover in his third year, as happened with Reagan? Or will it follow Carter’s path, experiencing brief upticks or short-lived surges along a declining path, culminating in defeat in 2012?

We know that the economy is a determinant, and that war casualties, as well as how the president reacts to foreign and domestic shocks, also play a significant role. It would appear that neither Eisenhower nor Nixon suffered electorally from additional losses incurred in a war he had “inherited” from a previous administration, so unless these conflicts drag on indefinitely with no improvement in sight, we may expect the same result in the case of Obama with respect to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the economy recovers and unemployment goes down while inflation remains muted, Mr. Obama’s approval rating will rise, making him a favorite to win in 2012. On the other hand, if unemployment stays stubbornly high and disposable income growth remains anemic, or if inflation skyrockets, approval will sink further, putting his reelection at risk. As for shocks, by their very nature they are unpredictable. A natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a riot, an epidemic, a scandal, or some other event may alarm the public, requiring an effective response. If this is not forthcoming, as arguably was the case during the Carter administration, approval will suffer, and with it the prospects for 2012. To this point, Obama’s presidency has been crisis-free. Whether, or how long, this state of affairs will continue, is anyone’s guess.

Alfred G. Cuzan is Professor of Political Science at The University of West Florida. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, a Liberty Fund fellow, and a Henry Salvatori Fellow of the Heritage Foundation. Most of his most recent publications have been on American presidential elections. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Florida Political Science Association last month.