The Gallup Organization polled President Obama’s overall approval rating at 49% on February 10th. That may not sound great, but it actually puts the President on good footing to be re-elected. Gallup also offers a comparison with past Gallup Polls of Presidential approval ratings for the February following their first midterm election. George W. Bush, just over a month from starting the war that would ultimately consume his Presidency, had a 59% approval rating, but something interesting comes to light in comparisons with the preceding Presidents.
Bill Clinton’s February 1995 approval rating was 46%, and he won re-election easily and ultimately became immensely popular. The 1-termer George H. W. Bush had a February 1991 approval rating of 83%. Ronald Reagan had a 40% approval rating in February 1983 and was re-elected in a landslide in 1984; Jimmy Carter also had a 40% approval rating back in February 1979 but famously lost his re-election bid in a landslide.
Richard Nixon had a 49% approval rating in February 1971, and won re-election in what is probably the biggest Democratic Presidential campaign embarrassment of the past century.
There are different ways to look at these comparisons. First, one could say that Presidential approval ratings aren’t indicative of anything; I don’t buy that. Second, one could say the dynamics of Presidential politics depend heavily on heavily on contingencies, and so a President’s re-election prospects can’t be forecast the moment he faces his 2nd Congress; in broad strokes this must be true, but I still say it profits us political junkies to try to understand what sorts of factors upset a presidency. Only 3 sitting Presidents since World War II have failed to win re-election if they sought it–Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush Sr. All 3 confronted abysmal economic conditions and failed to deal with them.
That’s one way of looking at it–and while it’s unoriginal to the point of banality, maybe the question is why we political junkies seem to shy away from the economic indicators. Our country’s economic fundamentals are strong; if President Obama can bring unemployment down (or if it simply falls, for whatever reason), and housing prices pick up after the stagnation of 2007, collapse of 2008-09, and stagnation thereafter, he will likely be impervious to attack. But if we fail to find a solution for the lagging economic variables–especially unemployment–then we find ourselves in Jimmy Carter/George Bush Sr. political territory. You can be a moral exemplar for your people and you can win a major war with remarkable speed and ease, but Americans will not abide pervasive high unemployment. Our economists were by and large unpleasantly-surprised by the Financial Crash; now that they have given portents of a jobless recovery it is the President’s full-time job to see that they are pleasantly-surprised.