U.S. Presidents Typically Less Popular in Second Term

U.S. Presidents Typically Less Popular in Second Term

by Andrew Dugan

Obama's approval now higher than first-term average, but "second-term curse" looms

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On the eve of a new term, President Barack Obama's approval rating currently stands at 56% in the latest three-day Gallup Daily tracking average -- seven percentage points higher than the average of his monthly approval ratings (49%) for the first 48 months of his administration, between January 2009 and December 2012. Despite this popularity boost, if Obama's second-term average approval rating eclipses his first-term average, it would buck the historical trend -- only two out of seven post-World War II presidents have had higher approval ratings in their second than in their first term.

Presidential Approval Averages, by Terms

Despite a noticeable upward trend in his approval ratings since the 2012 election, President Obama's approval ratings could begin to slip as the wear and tear of the second term take hold, a result some consider inevitable for any second-term president due to public fatigue with the presidential administration, scandal, or political agenda setbacks. In other words, Obama could face the supposed "second-term curse," whereby his political capital is greatly diminished over the additional term, a result so common to twice-serving administrations that it has been given a name. Past Gallup data suggest that this curse, insofar as it exists, has a strong likelihood to take a toll on a president's approval rating.

Reagan and Clinton Only Ones Who Scored Better During Second Term

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the only two out of seven previously re-elected post-World War II presidents who augmented their popularity over the course of their second stretch in office. Reagan and Clinton -- who had identical 50% first-term approval averages -- each entered office during a down economy and presided over muscular economic growth during their second term. As a result, their approval ratings moved upward; Reagan's average rose to 55%, while Clinton's soared to 61%.

Presidential Job Approval Ratings for Reagan and Clinton, Second Term

Clinton's second-term increase is noteworthy, given that he was embroiled in a sex scandal and became only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached. It appears the robust dot-com economy trumped his personal problems. Reagan saw congressional investigations weigh on his image as well; his approval rating dipped below 50% through much of 1987, a year dominated by coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal. Still, Reagan's overall popularity was higher in his second term than in his first, buoyed by strong ratings in his first two years after being re-elected in 1984.

All other presidents experienced a drop in their second-term approval rating averages, albeit to varying degrees. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush all felt the "second-term curse" more acutely, at least judging by their approval ratings.

President Bush holds the dubious distinction of registering the greatest drop in average approval rating between terms; his second-term average of 37% was 25 points lower than his first-term average. President Nixon, meanwhile, holds the absolute lowest average second-term approval rating (34%). The Watergate scandal truly cursed the Nixon administration -- Nixon wasn't even able to complete his term due to the enormity of the accusations against him; his final approval rating was a dismal 24% when he resigned in August 1974.

President Johnson, whose abridged first term came via succession rather than election, also saw a big drop in his approval rating. The average of his approval ratings was 24 points lower in his second term (50%) than in his first. Johnson's unpopularity probably influenced his decision not to run in the 1968 presidential campaign, for which he was constitutionally eligible.

President Truman, another president not elected to his initial term but who did win election in his own right in 1948, saw his second-term average approval rating drop 20 points to 36%.

Presidential Job Approval Ratings for Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush, Second Term

Notably, presidents with high first-term average approval ratings seem especially prone to second-term letdowns. Presidents Bush and Johnson, who each experienced national crises that boosted their approval ratings in their first period in office -- the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Bush's case, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Johnson's -- are the best examples of this. Only President Dwight Eisenhower was able to somewhat maintain his exalted approval ratings, though he saw his approval decline by 10 points in his second term.

Meanwhile, Reagan and Clinton had first-term average approval ratings close to Obama's current unremarkable average, and those two presidents saw their popularity increase in the remainder of their presidencies. Should the economic recovery pick up over the next four years, it is highly probable that Obama's approval rating will improve.

The trajectory of a president's approval ratings during the additional term doesn't appear closely tied to the magnitude of his re-election victory. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were overwhelmingly re-elected, but both struggled considerably thereafter. President Clinton, though he was elected by a huge margin in the Electoral College vote, failed to secure a majority of the popular vote, yet proved a popular second-term president.


Obama is now slightly more popular than he typically was through most of his first term; consequently, he may have a heightened amount of influence as he begins to pursue his next-term agenda. New presidential terms are difficult -- regardless of the size of the re-election victory -- as Obama himself admitted recently when he cautioned he was "more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms." Yet, setbacks and opprobrium need not permanently derail a president, as Reagan's and Clinton's presidencies show.

There is no sure way to overcome the "second-term curse," but these data show it can be avoided, or at least its impact mitigated. Interestingly, the three presidents who finished their second term in the lowest regard (aside from Nixon, who resigned his office before the end of his term) -- Truman, Johnson, and Bush -- were plagued by ongoing and seemingly growing military conflicts in far-away countries. Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton -- the only two-term presidents to finish their time in office with average approval ratings above 50% -- presided over strong economic growth and as such were rewarded with the American public's strong support. Even so, Eisenhower didn't avoid the "curse."

President Obama is currently in between these two places -- economic growth is slow and unsteady, but the unpopular war in Afghanistan is on schedule to wind down. Beyond that, Obama will need to focus on the issues most important to Americans in order to remain popular, such as finding ways to make politics "work" or appear to work.

Working in Obama's favor is that his first-term approval rating average was below average, leaving open the possibility that he will hit his stride in his second term rather than his first, however uncommon that scenario has been in the past. While the probability that Obama can build his popularity in his second term is not high historically speaking, it is hardly impossible.

Explore President Obama's approval ratings in depth and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.

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