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.”