The end of Obama's honeymoon?

Critics want to believe the president's another Carter, but the numbers don't add up


Gabriel Winant
July 21, 2009 1:01AM (UTC)

How well we know this story: The new president is sworn in, and the nation swoons. He’s Kennedy, he’s Roosevelt, he’s McKinley, he’s your new bicycle. His numbers soar and his agenda speeds through Congress. Then, a few months in, things start to go sour. Maybe there’s infighting in the White House, or a downturn in the economy or a botched proposal. Next thing you know, the opposition is salivating and its operatives are swearing up and down that the president’s agenda is doomed and his party's members of Congress are sitting ducks.

Some version of this happened to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A quick glance at that list should be enough to tell you that early judgments of presidencies have a way of being misleading. Some of those guys were reelected overwhelmingly, some not by much and some not at all.

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But a Republican can dream.

RealClearPolitics' White House reporter, Mike Memoli, has a post entitled, “Obama Third Least Popular President Since World War II.” Memoli makes this argument by comparing the president’s 55 percent approval rating in a new Gallup poll with all the other post-WWII presidents at this point in their terms.

Combine that data with some new polls showing Obama tied with or barely leading possible Republican challengers, and the Intersphere is abuzz: The president is another Jimmy Carter, an ineffectual head of an administration rapidly falling in the polls.

Salon spoke with two pollsters -- both Democrats -- about this. Both pointed out major flaws in this way of looking at things.

First, points out Paul Maslin, a sometime contributor to Salon, there is a general downward trend in presidential popularity. Because of increased polarization, poll respondents of the opposition party are quicker to rally to the “disapprove” side than they once were. That's why the two presidents Obama ranks above in that “ten out of twelve” figure are the last two, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Maslin also said he believes there really isn't any point in doing comparisons like this, because every presidency is different as every president has to deal with a different set of problems. Reagan looked terrible in 1982 because Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, induced a sharp recession to combat inflation that was in no way Reagan’s fault. Obama, notes Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com, happened to be in charge for multiple events for which there wasn’t any immediately popular response. “I don’t think they had a popular option on the General Motors situation,” Blumenthal says.

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Plus, this isn’t quite a fair representation of Gallup's numbers. “Memoli picks the most recent Gallup, at 55,” says Blumenthal. “Why not pick up their daily average, at 61?” Gallup itself has a memo out today noting that the average approval for the second quarter of Obama’s first year in office -- April 20 through June 8 -- was a healthy 62 percent, leading Gallup to suggest that he may “still be in the honeymoon phase of his presidency.”

Furthermore, it’s really too early to start sweating presidential approval. The hated Reagan of 1982 won 49 states two years later. Johnson, hugely popular in 1965, was struggling in 1966 and had to drop out of the 1968 contest. Maslin, for one, has a solution for the early obsession over Obama's numbers: “Wake me up in a year," he says.

Update: The earlier version of this post accidentally suggested that Mark Blumenthal said that Obama may "still be in the honeymoon phase of his presidency." The statement came from a Gallup memo.


Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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