Obama’s best days are probably ahead

His second term could produce the broad, sustained popularity that eluded him in his first

Topics: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton,

It’s not surprising that President Obama clocks in near the bottom of a list compiled by Gallup of average first-term approval ratings for presidents in the postwar era. Obama’s average score of 49.1 percent places him ahead only of Gerald Ford (47.2 percent) and Jimmy Carter (45.5 percent), while the highest numbers belong to Lyndon Johnson (74.2 percent) and John F. Kennedy (70.1 percent).

It’s actually a fairly misleading list. Johnson’s first term, for instance, is defined as the 14 months between Kennedy’s assassination and the 1965 inaugural – a period defined by unprecedented national unity that benefited the new president enormously. Or there’s George H.W. Bush, who was drummed out of office with just 37 percent of the vote in 1992; but his average approval rating sits at over 60 percent, thanks to the astronomical numbers he racked up in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

In terms of understanding the trajectory of Obama’s presidency, the list is useful in two ways. For one, it’s a reminder of the consistently rocky political terrain he spent the last four years navigating. The story line is well-known but worth repeating once more: He inherited two wars and an economy in a free fall that hadn’t been seen since the Depression and faced a Republican Party that changed the norms of opposition party behavior in its quest to derail his agenda, deny him bipartisan achievements, and depress his poll numbers. In this context, Obama’s average approval (and his ability to win reelection by nearly 5 million votes) is rather remarkable.

It also speaks to the opportunity that comes with the start of his second term: a chance to achieve and sustain a broader level of popularity and to make continuity a major theme of 2016 presidential race.

Obviously, the biggest single factor in determining Obama’s second term popularity will be the economy. As it improves, and especially if the pace of improvement accelerates, his numbers should rise. Following through on his promise of an orderly end to the Afghanistan war in the next two years should also help Obama’s standing. Avoiding high-profile scandals, one of his first-term strengths, will also help his numbers.

And then there’s the opposition. Obama talked during the campaign of breaking the Republican fever, and while that hasn’t happened yet, the last month has brought some genuinely encouraging signs. The president may well notch the sort of big bipartisan deals he so eagerly sought in his first term. Voters love idea of bipartisanship; if they’re suddenly exposed to lots of noise about Obama striking deals with Republicans that both sides seem to like, there should be a polling benefit.

In other words, the idea that Obama’s approval rating might climb well into the 50s and maybe even cross the 60 percent mark in his second term is quite plausible. This would be good for Obama’s legacy, of course, but it would also have a dramatic impact on the next presidential race.

Consider the last two presidents who racked up enviable second term approval scores: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Each of them had their hiccups – Iran-Contra and a disappointing 1986 midterm election for Reagan and impeachment for Clinton – but each entered his final year in office with broad popularity.

This provided an enormous advantage for their vice presidents, both of whom sought to succeed them. In 1988, George H.W. Bush faced multiple opponents in the GOP primaries (Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Pete du Pont and Al Haig) and didn’t receive much official help from his boss; Reagan remained publicly neutral in the race. But Bush’s eight-year association with Reagan was a powerful selling point to Republican primary voters. All of the candidates strained to be seen as the Gipper’s rightful successor, but Bush had the most natural claim. The decisive moment came on Super Tuesday, when the contest shifted to the heart of Reagan country – the South, where Reagan-adoring Republicans delivered massive margins to his loyal vice president.

In 2000, Clinton played a more active role in assisting Al Gore, believing that his own legacy would be enhanced if his own V.P. succeeded him. The Clinton White House helped clear out the Democratic field for Gore, leaving him to face only one opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley. And Clinton made his preference for Gore clear. Gore ended up winning every primary and caucus.

Contrast those examples with 2008, when Republicans ran as far away as possible from their party’s unpopular second-term president, George W. Bush. His vice president, Dick Cheney, knew better than to seek the presidency on his own.

So if Obama’s second term is a success, the Democratic Party will probably be in a mood to nominate the candidate who can make the strongest continuity argument. Things get interesting here because, unlike with Reagan and Clinton, it’s not clear the vice president would be the natural successor. Joe Biden is plainly interested in running in 2016, but Hillary Clinton probably has a stronger claim, based on her near-miss 2008 campaign and loyal service as secretary of state. As I’ve written before, it’s hard to see Biden running if Clinton does; but if she passes and Obama is in good political health, his popularity could plausibly propel Biden to the nomination.

In terms of general election, the track record of popular second-term presidents is mixed. Political observers are still arguing over whether Clinton ended up helping or hurting Gore in 2000. Would Gore have shored up his standing if he’d asked Clinton to campaign with him in the race’s closing days – a way of reminding voters of the economic prosperity that had taken hold on Clinton’s watch? Or would it have turned off voters who were offended by Clinton’s personal behavior? Or would it have not made any difference?

Reagan’s popularity seemed to help Bush in the fall of ’88, although it’s worth remembering that Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by double-digits that summer. There was a level of Reagan fatigue, despite his overall popularity, that Dukakis didn’t fully exploit. Going farther back, there’s also the case of Dwight Eisenhower, whose vice president, Richard Nixon, fell short against Kennedy in 1960.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that unforeseen events will swallow up Obama’s second term and that his poll numbers will end up dropping. But if his tone seemed especially optimistic in his inaugural address today, it was for good reason: The worst days of his presidency may very well be behind him – and some very good ones may be just ahead.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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