The job approval ratings of George W. Bush and Barack Obama
were remarkably similar as they began their second terms in office -- in 2005
and 2013, respectively. Both Bush and Obama began in the low 50% range,
saw their ratings begin to drop in their fifth years, and both saw a modest
recovery coming into their sixth year in office. That remarkable convergence has come to an end.
Obama’s ratings began a month-by-month rise at the beginning of this year -- going from 41% in January to 44% in April (and 45% so far in May). Beginning in February of his sixth year (2006) Bush’s ratings began a dramatic month-to-month fall -- going from 43% in January to 32% in May. Thus, where the two presidents had job approval ratings within a couple of points of each other in January of their sixth years, five months later Obama’s ratings are a remarkable 13 percentage points higher than Bush’s were at this time in his presidency.
The initial similarity between Bush and Obama in their fifth years is no doubt coincidence; there is no necessary reason why one president’s job approval ratings should be similar to those of other presidents at the same time in their tenures. Each presidency, basically, is unique. But it seemed to many observers that the two were following the same course. Now, it's a very different picture.
What happens from this point on, of course, remains to be seen. Bush’s job approval recovered some as 2006 went on, but was still relatively weak at 37% for the month of October, immediately preceding the 2006 midterm election in which his party suffered major losses in the midterm elections. If Obama’s job approval rating were to continue to climb up closer to the 50% mark, the climate would be significantly more favorable for Democrats this fall than if the opposite occurs and Obama’s ratings were to fall down below 40%.
But much can happen over the next five months, particularly in terms of the economy, often the driving force behind a president's job approval rating. It’s possible that the conventional wisdom focusing on the dismal re-election climate facing Democrats this year could need some modifications if Obama’s performance measures do, in fact, climb higher.
It’s interesting to note the similarity of the job approval ratings of two other post-World War II presidents in their fifth and sixth years. (Only four presidents before Obama since World War II were elected twice and served their full two terms: Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush.) The two of interest are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, whose fifth and sixth year approval ratings I’ve added into the graph below. Both men had approval ratings in the mid-50% to the mid-60% range during their fifth and sixth years (1985-1986 and 1997-1998), respectively. Both saw their ratings tick up going into and through their sixth years. Reagan’s October 1986 average was 63%, while Clinton’s October 1998 average was 65%. Both men’s political parties did well in the midterm elections in those years.
It’s highly unlikely that Obama’s job approval ratings are going to skyrocket up to the 60% range between now and November -- matching Clinton and Reagan’s before their second midterm elections. It’s possible, as well, that Obama’s job approval ratings could turn south again, dropping down into George W. Bush range. But, at the moment, the key here is that Obama’s performance ratings have been undergoing a renaissance of sorts in recent months, which everything else being equal, bodes better for his party in November than if those ratings had continued to sink.