Barack Obama, a youthful 47-year-old former constitutional law professor and community organizer, campaigned on hope and change, and in 2008 became the first African American elected president. His speeches were persuasive, eloquent and at times inspiring. Obama charmed audiences, large and small, and his demeanor projected poise and stability.
His inauguration, held in the depths of the Great Recession, was prelude to nearly a year of strong public approval – the first six-month average was 64%. As the country began to crawl out of the financial crisis, hope, poise, and stability were in demand.
On the other hand, Donald Trump, a 70-year-old real estate tycoon and reality TV star, campaigned as an outsider, a champion for those left behind by Washington elites. His speeches were forceful and controversial, often baiting rivals and mocking tradition.
Trump delighted and shocked audiences, and his demeanor projected an unusual combination of conviction and volatility. In his inauguration speech, Trump was unapologetic, edgy, and needled convention. About 42% of Americans approved.
First term comparison
The Figure below traces monthly approval ratings of Obama and Trump during the first 39 months in office. Clearly, Obama enjoyed an initial surge in support typical for newly elected presidents –labeled the “honeymoon”. However, nothing of the sort for Trump. He stayed near 40% approval.
Nevertheless, Obama could not maintain the early support. The gravitational force that is partisan polarization prevailed. Except for the short approval rally after the death of Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011 (month 29), Obama and Trump’s approval ratings forged nearly the same path.
Correlations demonstrate the extent of similarity. For the first 29 months, there is virtually no relationship between Obama and Trump’s approval (correlation = 0.038). Obama’s ratings varied and declined from an impressive early term high. By comparison, Trump’s ratings hardly budged.
However, for the months 30 thru 39, Obama and Trump’s approval reflected a striking likeness (0.706). That 9 month period turns out to be a harbinger of years to come.
The low approval, low variability pattern would dominate Obama’s second term. In fact, Obama’s second term approval looks very much like Trump’s.
These two men are just so very different in temperament, style, personality and policy that it seems strange the public would evaluate their performances so similarly.
It does not seem strange, however, if we consider the political environment – instead of focusing exclusively on individual attributes.
Obama and Trump share the common experience of governing the country during unparalleled times of partisan conflict. Their public approval ratings reflect environmental constraints they face, not necessarily the various talents they possess.
Because they governed under similar limitations, their performances are expected to be more alike than different.
Next, in Part 2, I provide additional evidence that demonstrates the force of political environment on Obama and Trump’s approval ratings.