Why Obama Won’t Bounce Back

History shows presidents who aren’t running for reelection don’t recover from drops in their approval rating.

President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
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Alex Roarty
Nov. 12, 2013, midnight

His­tory says Pres­id­ent Obama’s sag­ging ap­prov­al rat­ings — which this month have neared the lows of his en­tire pres­id­ency — aren’t go­ing to im­prove be­fore he leaves the White House in 2017. And that’s a troub­ling tra­ject­ory for Demo­crats feel­ing the pres­sure of reelec­tion next year.

His­tor­ic­ally, pres­id­ents whose ap­prov­al plum­mets in their second term don’t re­cov­er. Such was the case for Harry Tru­man back in 1950, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup sur­veys. After reach­ing a high of 46 per­cent in Ju­ly of 1950, the 33rd pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al nev­er rose above 35 per­cent dur­ing the last two-and-a-half years of his pres­id­ency. The pre­cip­it­ous drop co­in­cided with Amer­ica’s in­volve­ment in the Korean War.

An­oth­er war helped bring about a more re­cent pres­id­ent’s down­fall. George W. Bush nev­er topped 50 per­cent after March 2005 and spent most his re­main­ing ten­ure mired in the low to mid-30s, thanks in part to the un­pop­ular­ity of the Ir­aq War. His ap­prov­al fur­ther de­clined near the end of his pres­id­ency, when the fin­an­cial crisis of 2008 left the eco­nomy in tat­ters.

In fact, no pres­id­ent in the last 60 years has watched his ap­prov­al rat­ings bounce back dur­ing their second term. Either they didn’t make it to an­oth­er stint in of­fice (Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush), nev­er dipped in the first place (Eis­en­hower and Clin­ton) or were re­moved from of­fice at the nadir of their pop­ular­ity (Nix­on). Lyn­don John­son re­covered some­what, but only after an­noun­cing he would not seek an­oth­er term. Ron­ald Re­agan dropped from the low 60s to the high 40s amid the Ir­an-Con­tra scan­dal, and his pop­ular­ity nev­er re­covered en­tirely un­til his last months in of­fice. But it also nev­er fell to lows ex­per­i­enced by Tru­man or Bush.

“In a second term, once a pres­id­ent’s num­bers de­cline, they nev­er come back up,” Ed Goe­as, a Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster, told re­port­ers last week dur­ing a break­fast hos­ted by the Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or. “There’s a good reas­on for that: they don’t have a reelec­tion cam­paign go­ing on. They don’t have the air cov­er on air. They’re not put­ting back to­geth­er a cam­paign in con­trast to the op­pos­i­tion.”

Goe­as sug­ges­ted Obama has reached a sim­il­ar point-of-no-re­turn in his pres­id­ency. A spate of sur­veys sug­gest the poll­ster might be right: The Pew Re­search Cen­ter last week found only 41 per­cent of adults ap­prov­ing of his job per­form­ance, while 53 per­cent dis­ap­proved. The 12-point split was the largest of his pres­id­ency, the sur­vey found. Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing was also at 41 per­cent in Gal­lup’s polling last week, in­clud­ing a three-day rolling sample that showed it bot­tom­ing out at 39 per­cent.

Obama and his sup­port­ers like to say he’ll nev­er face reelec­tion again, so his num­bers don’t mat­ter. But oth­er Demo­crats — namely red-state Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas of North, Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina and Mark Be­gich of Alaska — will face voters again, dur­ing next year’s midterms. And a slump­ing pres­id­ent has been noth­ing but bad news for his party col­leagues.

Demo­crats lost 28 House seats and five Sen­ate seats dur­ing the first two years of Tru­man’s second term. In 2006, Re­pub­lic­ans lost their ma­jor­ity in the House and Sen­ate, los­ing 30 and six seats, re­spect­ively, un­der Bush’s lead­er­ship. Pres­id­en­tial parties with a pop­u­lar chief ex­ec­ut­ive have man­aged to ac­tu­ally add seats at the six-year mark, like Bill Clin­ton in 1998.

The past isn’t as­suredly pro­logue for Obama. For one, there simply haven’t been enough pres­id­ents in the post-World War II era to draw defin­it­ive con­clu­sions about their path — the sample size, in ef­fect, is too small. And Tru­man and Bush were also be­set by deeply un­pop­u­lar wars dur­ing the bulk of their second terms. Obama is off to a dif­fi­cult start in his second term, but there’s no cor­res­pond­ing cata­strophe like a war or fin­an­cial crisis.

The Af­ford­able Care Act’s botched rol­lout, likely part of the reas­on of the pres­id­ent’s dip in pop­ular­ity, threatens to drag him down fur­ther. But if the law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion im­proves without too much col­lat­er­al dam­age, or if the eco­nomy picks up, Obama could see a second-term bounce.

“It’s pos­sible for a pres­id­ent to see his ap­prov­al rat­ings re­cov­er after they’re dropped if you have some pos­it­ive news back­ground, if there’s a strong eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery,” said Alan Ab­ramow­itz, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence at Emory Uni­versity who has stud­ied the link between pres­id­en­tial ap­prov­al and elec­tions.

And al­though Obama’s num­bers are low, they’re still far high­er than the GOP’s, whose un­pop­ular­ity reached his­tor­ic lows after the shut­down and debt-ceil­ing im­broglios. It’s what could be­come one of the most sig­ni­fic­ant ques­tions of the 2014 midterms: Whose un­pop­ular­ity mat­ters more, Re­pub­lic­ans’ or Obama’s?

Demo­crats are con­fid­ent the GOP’s struggles trump Obama’s. But they ac­know­ledge a strug­gling pres­id­ent doesn’t help.

“Is it pos­sible for us to get the turnout we need if we don’t have a stronger pres­id­ent?” asked Celinda Lake, a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster who also spoke at the Mon­it­or break­fast. “That really, in my mind, is the ques­tion. Be­cause we can’t have a wave elec­tion in our fa­vor if we don’t get these … miss­ing voters out.

“We would be helped enorm­ously by a pres­id­ent who is en­ga­ging voters and who is turn­ing people out to vote.”