The Gallup Plunge, in Context
In dropping below a 40-percent approval rating in the Gallup poll for the first time this weekend, President Obama hit a troubling milestone for his re-election campaign, but he also joined every president since John F. Kennedy to fall below this threshold.
Obama's approval rating jumped back above 40 percent Monday: 41 percent now approve of the job he is doing, while 53 percent disapprove. But overall, his approval rating has sagged since the debate this summer over raising the federal debt limit.
While this is an ignominious moment for the Obama administration, a review of Gallup's indispensable Presidential Job Approval Center shows that every presidency is different: presidents who dropped below 40 percent in their first terms were sometimes re-elected, and those who had overwhelmingly high approval ratings at this stage of the cycle didn't always maintain them through their re-election campaigns.
Courtesy of Gallup, a quick look back:
George W. Bush slipped below 40 percent for the first time in October 2005, after he had won reelection. At this point in 2003, Bush's approval rating was around 60 percent -- but dropping.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, saw his approval rating dip below 40 percent less than six months into his first term. By this point in 1995, he was at 46 percent, and he would quickly rise to 54 percent by Election Day 1996. Even during the impeachment process, Clinton never slipped below 50-percent approval during his second term.
A high approval rating at this point in the election cycle does not always translate to re-election. At this point in 1991, more than 70 percent of Americans approved of the job George H.W. Bush was doing as president. But Bush's fall was sudden: Six months after, in February 1992, he dipped below 40 percent for the first time.
Ronald Reagan first fell below 40-percent approval early in 1983, but by August of that year, he had rebounded slightly to 43 percent. He continued rebounding through his reelection campaign and all the way until 1987, when he dipped as low as 43 percent during the Iran-Contra Affair.
At this point in his presidency, Jimmy Carter's approval rating was in the low 30s, having rebounded from the upper 20s earlier in the summer. Carter first dipped below 40 percent in early 1979. Americans briefly rallied around Carter later that year, when Iranians captured 52 American hostages in Tehran, but Carter's approval ratings returned to the 30s less than a year later, and he lost re-election.
Gerald Ford took office in August of 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon; his approval rating sank below 40 percent five months later.
For his part, Nixon was quite popular for most of his presidency, until Watergate. His approval rating fell below 40 percent in the summer of 1973.
Lyndon Johnson's approval rating sank below 40 percent for the first time at roughly this point of his first full term in the White House: August of 1967. By this time, the U.S. seemed trapped in an increasingly-unpopular morass in Vietnam. When he announced he would not run for re-election in March 1968, Johnson's approval ratings were in the mid-30s.