His second term could produce the broad, sustained popularity that eluded him in his first
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 writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11