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Friday, December 18, 2009

Obama's Job Approval Rating in Historical Context

Former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove published a piece about President Obama in The Wall Street Journal this week. It was not surprisingly quite negative. Rove was reacting to Obama’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, during which the president gave himself a B+ grade for his first year in office. (Actually a “solid” B+.)

Rove took issue with Obama's self-grading. As would be expected.

But what caught my eye was Rove’s assertion in the piece that: “Barack Obama has won a place in history with the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year: 49% approve and 46% disapprove of his job performance in the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll.”

There are several issues here as I ponder Rove’s evocation of Gallup poll data in this historical context.

First, the historical record. Gerald Ford ended up his first year in office, 1974, with a 42% approval rating (Gallup Poll, Dec. 6-9, 1974). This is the lowest job approval rating to date of any president since WWII at the end of his first year.

Of course, Ford was not elected in 1974. He ascended to the Oval Office in August of that year when Richard Nixon resigned. So should it count, or not? I would probably tilt towards leaving it out of most comparisons. It's an entirely different dynamic when a president reaches office suddenly upon the death (Truman, LBJ) or resignation (Ford) of a president rather than having been elected.

All right, then. What about elected presidents? Ronald Reagan had a 49% job approval rating in Gallup's Dec. 11-14, 1981 poll. This was the lowest "end of first year" rating of all presidents between Harry Truman and George W. Bush.

So, taking the Dec. 11-13 USA Today/Gallup poll as our benchmark, and leaving out Gerald Ford, we can see that Obama's approval rating was tied with Reagan's -- in that poll.

However. Examining Rove’s statement carefully, I note that he uses the plural “worst ratings.” I think what Rove is doing here is taking into account the disapproval side of the equation. Reagan’s Dec. 11-14, 1981 poll had Reagan with that 49% approval but also with a 41% disapproval rating. This 41% is indeed lower than Obama’s 46% disapproval rating in the Dec. 11-13 poll. (One of the reasons for this is that most presidential job approval ratings in the “olden” days had higher “don’t knows.” Among other reasons, this could reflect the fact that interviews were conducted in person, as opposed to today’s telephone interviews.)

But, Gallup generally looks just at the approval ratings when putting ratings into historical context. We typically don’t take into account disapproval ratings. Thus, we would say that Obama’s Dec. 11-13 poll approval rating (singular) was tied with the previous low for an elected president.

A second point. In addition to our traditional “stand alone” polls, Gallup now has our ongoing tracking research.

The USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Dec. 11-13, is thus not the final word on Obama’s ratings “at the end of his first year.” Our final three-day tracking average will be out just before the New Year. We have no idea, at this point, what it will show. We do know that in our tracking as of Friday, Dec. 18, Obama’s approval rating is at 52%. So, it’s entirely possible that Gallup’s final read on Obama’s approval “at the end of his first year” will be above Reagan’s 49%. We’ll have to wait and see.

Bottom line here: Rove’s conclusion about Obama's final rating in his first year is premature. We'll check back in on this at the beginning of 2010.

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