As demonstrated in the last post, the grip of partisan politics seemed to take hold of the Obama administration near the completion of his first year. Obama’s monthly approval ratings crept down toward 50%, and by years end dropped below majority support. That trend continued, and in the subsequent months Obama established several records for low pubic approval.
His first record, 12th quarter average approval – an indication of reelection chances – ranked lowest among all elected presidents. Jimmy Carter’s 12th quarter approval was 3 points higher at 46.2 percent.
The second record, for January of his reelection year, Obama’s average approval was lower than the previous mark set by George Bush in 1992.
Finally, during his last year in office, the 77-point gap in Obama’s average approval between Democrats and Republicans set yet another record, topping his own mark from four years earlier.
Obama was thus unpopular and historically polarizing. He was elected with hopes of unifying the country. Instead, polarization prevailed.
President Trump has followed this same difficult course. His 12th quarter approval rating tied Obama’s record. Then, in January of 2020, Trump’s anemic approval of 42.6% broke Obama’s January mark by 3 points. Finally, an 82-point gap in Trump’s average approval between Republicans and Democrats established a new record for polarization.
Trump is thus unpopular and historically polarizing. He was elected with the hopes of disrupting politics as usual and “draining” the Washington swamp. Instead, the dominant feature of national politics grew still worse. Once more, polarization prevailed.
Governing during difficult times
These record numbers surprise many. After all, they imply Obama and Trump’s presidential performances are comparable: They both received poor grades from the public.
While supporters of both presidents would strongly reject that implication, the approval numbers are difficult to ignore.
However, instead of focusing on the presidents – comparing them directly, allow the numbers to draw attention to the political environment. The hostile partisan climate – not the presidents – produced the record low levels of public approval.
Obama second term looks like Trump’s first
The correlation between Obama’s second term and Trump’s first is a strong positive r = 0.48. Observing the graph below, approval ratings do appear to vary together: In general, when Obama’s approval decreased so did Trump’s. And when it increased, Trump’s elevated as well.
The association between Obama’s second term and Trump’s first is even stronger than the correlation between Obama’s first and second term r = 0.45!
The Table shows about a 5-point decline in Obama’s average approval from term 1 to term 2 alongside a major reduction in monthly variability – standard deviation.
Media accounts point the finger directly at Obama’s leadership – poor handling of the economy or relations with Congress. Ignore that for a moment. Instead, consider the decline in public approval, and its variability, as a signal of the increasingly strong hand of partisan politics.
Indeed, Obama completed his second term as one of the steadiest presidents, his approval generally fluctuated in a very narrow band in the mid-40s. This says more about the political context than it does about Obama.
To illustrate, Trump’s average approval and variability dropped still lower. Ironically, for such an unpredictable president, Trump exhibits the most stable public approval in history. Again, this speaks to the influence of political context as much as Trump’s influence.
The key factor responsible for the low approval and low variability is the opposition party. Republicans’ approval of Obama rarely rose above 20%, and occasionally dipped into the single digits. Similarly, Democrats’ approval of Trump never reached 15% and the norm is single digits.
In short, both presidents received very high approval from their own party and very low from the opposition. The pattern repeats from one month to the next.
More than in previous eras, this distinctive public opinion environment creates surprisingly similar public approval trajectories for two very different presidents.
Naturally, media folk attribute presidential performance to presidents. During periods of low approval, the president takes blame. Conversely, with high approval, presidents claim credit. But as the Obama and Trump numbers showed, we should also consider the political environment as a determining factor.
To be clear, I am not suggesting presidents merely surrender to the circumstances. Their actions are consequential, can challenge the political context, and are often necessary for change.
Rather, I am proposing only that we respect the power of circumstances to shape presidential performance. And, in this instance, the performance ratings of two very different presidents are comparable precisely because each governed in a similarly harsh period of partisan conflict.
In short, we can believe Obama and Trump are polarizing figures. Or, alternatively, we can recognize they governed during polarizing times.
Finally, here’s another way to think about the impact of political circumstance.
If Al Gore had won the 2000 election, do you think his public approval rating would have skyrocketed after 9/11 like it did under George Bush?
What about Hillary Clinton. If she had won in 2016. Would her public approval ratings appear much the same as Trump’s today?
If we do not dwell on personalities, and instead focus on political circumstances, the answers to these questions are self-evident.