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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Obama's Job Approval Rating in Context

President Obama’s job approval rating is down in recent weeks, although not dramatically. The American people gave their elected executive officer an average 42% rating throughout the month of June, which was down from 44% the previous two months (April and May), but then quite close to the 42% in February and the 41% rating Americans gave him in January. In other words, from a big picture perspective, Obama has been operating in a quite constricted zone in the lower 40% range all year. 

Shorter-term ratings show more fluctuation than monthly averages. Obama's weekly ratings have been as high as 45% and as low as 40% this year. His three-day rolling average, based on about 1,500 interviews per report, have ranged a bit wider still, from a high of 47% in May to a low of 39% on several occasions in January and February.  

These data show the natural pattern of some regression to the mean. Obama's rating can move up and move down in the short term, based on a combination of real world events and sampling error, but to this point, they tend to be pulled back toward the overall yearly mean of 42.7% for the first six months of this year. In other words, most of the change we have seen this year is revolving around his overall grand mean for the year. He did start out low, rose in the months that followed, and has now ticked back down again. His three-day average for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week (June 30-July 2) is at 41%. We will see if Obama's job rating rebounds back toward the grand mean in the days and weeks to come, or if perhaps a new, lower pattern is in store for the president.

The president’s job approval rating for the month of June displays the usual differences across subgroups of the American population we have come to expect from a Democratic president. 

The biggest non-political demographic difference in approval is by race and ethnicity. His rating is 83% among blacks, 52% among Hispanics, and 32% among whites. This rating among blacks is not unusually low compared to what we have seen since October 2013, but is below the ratings which were closer to and often above 90% earlier in the Obama administration when his overall rating was higher. His 52% average in June among Hispanics is also not out of line with other monthly ratings in recent months, although as is the case for blacks, it was significantly higher in earlier months of the administration. Hispanic ratings are quite labile, as reviewed in this analysis in 2013, in part due to the smaller sample size of Hispanics, even on a monthly basis in which the overall sample size is 15,000 or so. Obama's rating among whites is within one percentage point of it’s all-time monthly low, which is not surprising given that his overall rating is within one point of its overall monthly low. 

If we put together all Americans who identify their race as something other than white -- blacks and Asians primarily -- we find an overall 65% approval rating, 33 points higher than putting all whites together. These data reflect one of the major realities of today’s political world in the U.S. -- race is a major predictor of politics. 

Obama receives higher job approval ratings among women than among men, better among those who are not married than among those who are married, better in the East than in any other region of the country, better among those who seldom or never attend church services than those who are more religious, and better among those with postgraduate education than among those with lesser education. His approval rating is also a direct inverse linear function of age, ranging from 48% among those 18 to 29 years to 38% among those 65 and older. 

Many of these demographic characteristics are interrelated, of course. Those living in the East are less likely to attend religious services than those living elsewhere, younger Americans are less likely to be white than those 65 and older, and so on. Thus, the group of Americans who are 18 to 29 years old, who live in the East, who are not married, who rarely attend religious services, and who have postgraduate degrees will have a high approval of Obama, indeed. One will find far fewer who approve of Obama's performance among older Americans living in the South who are married, very religious, and who don't have a college degree.

Political party identification and ideology remain huge predictors of views of a president, which is, of course, the precise pattern we expect. 

The relationship is not monolithic. In June, 79% of Democrats approved of the job Obama is doing, contrasted with 36% of independents and 9% of Republicans. None of these are record-setting numbers. Democrats’ monthly approval ratings of Obama have fallen as low as 76% previously, and reached their high of 91% in the first months of his administration as well as right around the time he was re-elected in 2012 when political emotions were highly activated. Republicans are within one point of their all-time low. We can push the boundaries a little by combining ideology with party identification, and get 81% of liberal Democrats who approve, compared with 6% of conservative Republicans.

Historically, the best comparison for Obama’s position in June is to look at where other presidents were in June of their sixth year in office. There have only been five presidents since World War II who were initially elected and who served on through to their sixth year: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Obama is, at this point, doing better than Nixon and Bush. The Nixon comparison is of course dramatic, since the Duke law graduate and World War II naval officer in June of his sixth year was just a couple of months away from resigning office in the face of near certain impeachment. Nixon received a job approval rating of 26% in the one poll Gallup conducted in June 1974. George W. Bush, a Harvard business school graduate and former pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, received 38% and 37% rating in two polls conducted in June 2006. Bush was beset by a number of issues in 2006, including in particular public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

On the other hand, Eisenhower, a West Point graduate and former five-star general, got a 54% rating in the one poll Gallup conducted that extended into June 1958. This was low for Ike. Reagan, who graduated from Eureka College and who served as an Army Air Force officer domestically in World War II, got a 61% and 64% rating in June 1986. Finally, Bill Clinton, who graduated from Yale law school and who did not serve in the military, was doing well in June 1998, getting 60% in two polls conducted that year.

Thus, Obama’s current performance is certainly not as bad as it could be. Remember that five presidents received ratings in the 20% range at some point in their careers -- Truman, Nixon, Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Obama’s lowest single rating in Gallup Daily tracking so far has been in the upper 30% range -- far away from the dreaded 20% range. On the other hand, for various reasons, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton were doing much better at this point in their administrations, well above where Obama is now. Although most presidents with low ratings manage to publicly reduce cognitive dissonance and deny that they are paying attention to their approval rating, any president deep in his soul would like to have a majority of the public approve of the job he is doing. Obama is not at that point now, and hasn't been since May of last year.

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