By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON—No one in the White House is celebrating over the latest polls. In a flurry of recent surveys, President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has dipped below 50 percent in a flurry of recent surveys. Rasmussen has him at 46 percent; Quinnipiac at 45; Gallup clinging to 50. And the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released Thursday had some heart-stopping numbers for Democrats: The president’s job approval was at 47 percent, down from 61 percent in April. Only 26 percent of respondents said they strongly approved of the president’s performance, compared with 38 percent in April. Just 39 percent said they would probably vote to re-elect him, only 23 percent definitely.
To put this into historical context, Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes that “Obama’s initial approval rating in his second year as president is among the lowest for elected presidents since Dwight Eisenhower. Only Ronald Reagan—who, like Obama, took office during challenging economic times—began his second year in office with a lower approval score (49 percent).”
This augurs poorly for Democrats in the short run—this year’s midterm elections—but not necessarily badly for Obama. Looking back at presidential approval numbers, it is possible to posit an inverse relationship between a president’s rating at the end of his first year and the eventual success of the presidency. Using the Gallup numbers, the highest two ratings at this stage of a presidency were enjoyed by George W. Bush (84 percent) and George H.W. Bush (80 percent). Bush 43 won a second term but ended his presidency with job approval numbers in the 20s. Bush 41 lost in his bid for re-election. Gallup’s bottom three were Bill Clinton (54), Obama (50) and Reagan (49). Not bad company for the current president to be in. This inverse relationship doesn’t hold perfectly true—Jimmy Carter had the fourth-lowest approval rating; Kennedy and Eisenhower had the highest numbers, after the Bushes. But it does suggest that the year-out snapshot is not determinative.
Moreover, the president’s rating is not likely to go much lower. “We think this is probably the trough” for Obama, said Ed Reilly of Financial Dynamics, which conducted the Allstate/National Journal survey. “We don’t know if we’ve found the bottom, but we’re near the bottom.”
Republican pollsters Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart of Public Opinion Strategies agree. “Obama’s base is most likely too loyal to allow his approval rating to drift below 45 percent,” they wrote in a recent assessment, although Republicans and many independent voters “are too disgusted with the actions of his administration to allow his approval numbers to surge back into the high 50s.”
It may not be time for presidential panic, but lawmakers up for re-election could be in a different boat if Obama’s ratings stay in this slump. Examining presidential approval and midterm election results since 1962, Bolger and Hobart found that presidential ratings between 50 and 59 percent the month before the election translated to an average loss of 12 House seats for his party. Approval ratings below 50 percent (Lyndon Johnson in 1966, Richard Nixon in 1974, Reagan in 1982, Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2006) yielded an average loss of 41 seats.
What to expect in November? At a dinner I attended to discuss the Allstate/National Journal poll, two savvy former congressmen, Republican Vin Weber of Minnesota and Democrat Richard Gephardt of Missouri, agreed that Democrats would maintain control of the House—but barely. And Gephardt, who went from majority to minority leader after the 1994 Democratic wipeout, said his former colleagues have little ability to affect results that will be driven more by the economic conditions—or, more precisely, voters’ perceptions of the economy—than anything lawmakers do. “Whether they like it or not,” Gephardt said, “the people on the Hill are virtually powerless to deal with all this.” Not a comforting thought for a Democratic incumbent, but probably an accurate assessment.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
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