What to make of Obama’s recent rise in approval in the polls?

An interesting facet of American politics is that Barack Obama’s approval ratings have gone up recently.  As Gina Jannone, a senior writer/editor at Rasmussenreports.com, noted on March 24th, Obama’s approval numbers have risen since January, a trend detected not only by Rasmussen, but by RealClearPolitics’ average of several polls in the last couple of months. 

Jannone attributed Obama’s rise in public approval to four factors:  (1) the current phase in his presidency – i.e., near the end of his time in office; (2) the campaign to elect his successor; (3) improved economic conditions – the price of gas is down, unemployment is down and the number of jobs is up (according to government statistics); and (4) Obama’s policy toward Cuba, which has received very positive coverage by the mainstream media (MSM).

Jannone also referred to journalist Daniel Gross’s observation that “there is a certain fondness for lame-duck presidents.” Gross also observed that Obama’s popularity is up lately.  He noted that Bill Clinton’s approval ratings rose following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and that Ronald Reagan’s popularity improved following the Iran-contra imbroglio and the stock market crash.

An intriguing aspect of American public opinion since the 1960s is that some two-term presidents’ popularity rises during their final days in office, while others trend downwards.

America has had five two-term presidents since 1960:  Richard Nixon (1969-74), Reagan (1981-89), Clinton (1993-2001), George W. Bush (2001-09), and Obama (2009-17).

I do not include post-war presidents prior to John F. Kennedy (1961-63) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) because a combination of increased presidential activism and especially greater MSM coverage of politics generally and the White House in particular has contributed to changes in the way Americans view their chief executives.

LBJ is not considered because he was not elected twice.  Nixon resigned before completing two full terms, but he was elected twice, so he’s included.

Of the five men who were elected president twice since 1960, two (Reagan and Clinton) saw their approval ratings go up during their last days in office, and Obama may be experiencing that also.  Two (Nixon and Bush #43) saw their approval ratings sink in their final days.

It doesn’t take much effort to figure out why Nixon’s approval rating went down after his landslide re-election in 1972.  A Gallup poll conducted in January 1973, found 67% of the public approved of him.  Mention “Watergate,” and one is well underway to understanding Nixon’s decline and fall.   A Gallup poll taken in his final month in office – August 1974 – found his approval rating had fallen to 24%.

Bush #43’s waning popularity after 2004, and especially in his last months in office, is a tad more complex, but a combination of embittered partisanship (remember the Democrats’ “Bush derangement syndrome”), press hostility, the public’s war-weariness, and especially the economic crisis that began in the fall of 1988 probably suffices.  The last poll taken while he was president – January 2001 – found his approval rating was 34%.  Just after 9/11/2001, it had been 90%.

It’s a bit more complicated when trying to understand why Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and now Obama’s, approval ratings went up/are going up during their last months in office.

I have relied on the Gallup Poll’s historical statistics of presidential approval ratings.  In the main, other polling organizations’ figures dovetail with Gallup’s. 

Reagan’s approval rating average during his first term (1981-85) was 50.3%.  His average during his second term (1985-89) was 55.3%.  The last Gallup poll taken while he was still in office – December 1988 – found his approval rating was 63%.

Clinton’s average approval rating was 49.6% during his first term (1993-97).  His average during his second term (1997-2001), however, was 60.6%.  The final Gallup poll taken while he was president -- January 2001 – found that his approval rating was 66%.

According to Gross, Obama’s approval ratings were “mired in the mid-40s” during virtually the entire time he’s been president, but recent polls have put him at or just above 50%. 

At first blush, one is inclined to attribute a president’s declining popularity toward the end of his days as chief executive just to the MSM’s negative coverage. 

Most members of the MSM hated Nixon passionately, and when he – as he later admitted – handed them “the sword,” they stuck it in and twisted it with glee. 

Much the same can be said of the MSM’s feelings about Bush #43.

On the other hand, probably because most members of the MSM are liberal Democrats, their coverage of Democrats Bill Clinton and especially Obama has been much more positive.

In Pattern of Deception (1996), for example, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center detailed the MSM’s deceptive reporting that benefitted Bill Clinton.  Graham implied that the MSM’s liberal bias in favor of Clinton was more flagrant than at any time in modern American history.

But that was before Obama emerged as a national figure.  In A Slobbering Love Affair (2009), former CBS TV reporter Bernard Goldberg described the MSM’s “romance” with him.  For a combination of reasons – MSM denizens’ partisanship, ideological leanings, and policy preferences, plus Obama’s heritage, background, and policy positions – Obama has received even more fawning press coverage than Clinton.

The tone of MSM coverage does not, however, explain why Reagan’s popularity rose as his presidency ended.  If the pattern of MSM coverage goes a significant way toward accounting for the (positive or negative) popularity ratings of Nixon, Bush #43, Clinton, and Obama, Reagan’s is clearly a deviant case. 

Reagan had a rare combination of personality and style that enabled him not only to withstand the MSM’s hostility, but to draw upon and benefit from positive feelings by large slices of the populace.

What common factor explains Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and perhaps Obama’s, increased popularity as lame ducks?  To borrow a line, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Near the end of 1988, the economy had recovered from the stock market crash of 1987.  The economy was experiencing happy days in 2000, although it would sour soon after Clinton left office.  Finally, there is ample reason to question the veracity of government statistics on today’s economy, but the MSM is touting how good times are.  (The U.S. was experiencing stagflation by 1974, and an economic crisis began during Bush #43’s final days.)

A president’s popularity goes up when the economy is thriving, and declines during hard times.

Obama also is fortunate to be president when many of the candidates to succeed him are disliked by sizable slices of the public.  Of the five Republican and Democrat candidates seeking to follow Obama, only the 74 year-old socialist Bernie Sanders is liked by a larger percentage of the populace than dislike him.  Three – Trump, Clinton, and Cruz – are disliked by roughly 50% of the public.

Why should we care if Obama’s popularity is rising?  Usually, the more popular a president is, the better are the chances that he will be succeeded by someone from his party.  As we saw in 2000, that pattern does not always hold, but if it does in 2016, the U.S. will probably get Hillary Clinton as the next president. 

If that happens, America is in more trouble than it is now.