Obama Approval Settles Into Narrow Range in 2014
Opinion

Obama Approval Settles Into Narrow Range in 2014

by Frank Newport

President Barack Obama's job approval rating has settled down into a significantly smaller range in 2014 than it has in any of his five previous years in office. This year, through the week that ended Dec. 14, Obama's weekly approval averages have ranged between a high of 45% and a low of 40%. The only other year even close to that narrow range of weekly approval averages was 2010, when his weekly averages ranged over eight percentage points, from 51% to 43%. In each of the other four years, the range in his job approval fell between 11 and 18 points.

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Further underscoring the American public's very stable rating of Obama in 2014 is the fact that his weekly averages at the extremes of the 2014 range -- 40% and 45% -- were the most rarely measured. His average approval rating was 45% for only two weeks this year, and he received an average 40% job approval in only five weeks. His most frequently occurring weekly averages were 42% and 43%, right around his overall yearly average through mid-December 2014 of 42%. In short, we have a portrait this year of a public whose evaluation of the president has become immune to substantial ups and downs -- a public whose opinions of the president have settled into a pretty stable low-40% range.

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Another interesting question revolves around where Obama's 43% average rating so far in December compares with other presidents at this point in their administrations.

Of course, there are remarkably few presidents since the advent of modern polling who actually were elected to two terms and served through to the end of their sixth year in office, where Obama is now. In other words, there aren't a lot of presidents with whom to compare Obama at this point in his administration -- only Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson were not elected to their first terms, but rather ascended to the presidency as a result of the death of the sitting president. Richard Nixon was elected twice, but resigned from office in August of his sixth year and thus didn't make it to December of that year (1974). John F. Kennedy died in office in his first term. Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency when Nixon was forced to resign in 1974, but was not re-elected. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush were defeated in their bids for second terms.

So we are left with a comparison of Obama's standing in December of his sixth year to Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Bush

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The data show that Obama is doing better than George W. Bush was at this point in his sixth year, but not doing as well as any of the other three presidents.

Different things were happening to these presidents in December of their sixth year. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in mid-December 1998, an action that was accompanied by the perhaps unanticipated consequence of a rise in his job approval rating rather than a decrease. Bush was bogged down in the Iraq war in December 2006 -- Gallup polling showed that the war was by far the most important problem facing the country at that time according to the people. Reagan was beset by the Iran Contra controversy, which heated up in the fall of 1986. Eisenhower's approval rating in December 1958 was down from the previous two years, where it had been well into the 70% range on occasion, but his high-50% range approval was still robust, particularly by today's standards.

So, there's not a lot of context for Obama's current job rating, at least in terms of his predecessors at this same point in their administrations, since he doesn't have a lot of predecessors since World War II who made it this far. Obama's current 43% average is certainly better than Bush's at this point in his administration, giving the current president some solace. Clinton was mainly being helped by the booming dot-com economy, along with pushback from the public against the Republicans in the House of Representatives who moved to impeach him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Reagan had problems, but still was doing better than Obama is now, although Reagan's approval did fall to as low as 43% in a poll conducted a few months later, in March 1987. And Eisenhower was serving in vastly different time, some 56 years ago.

How Obama will fare going forward is an empirical question that cannot be precisely forecasted. Presidents' approval ratings are usually driven first and foremost by the economy, and certainly few among us would claim to know exactly what that will be doing over the next two years. Otherwise, Obama's job approval ratings in his last two years will be driven by a wide variety of forces and events not yet foreseen. Given that Obama's ratings over this year have been very stable, the default would be to expect to see his ratings continue in the 40% range going forward. But that's simply a default based on current performance and by no means a prediction.

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