Since sometime in the summer of 2009, we've been hearing that President Obama has "historically low approval ratings." Is that true? Well, he has, recently and briefly, fallen below 40% approval in some polling, and that sounds pretty dismal. Is that unusual for a modern president?
Let's look at the range of approval highs and lows for the last thirteen presidents, Roosevelt through Obama, which is as far back as the data goes.
The presidential polling data for this article is taken from the Roper Center Public Opinion Archives. I invite interested readers to create a similar set of graphs for any other polling organization (say, Gallup), which should yield similar results.
First, here is a graph which shows, for every president since Franklin Roosevelt, the highest and lowest approval ratings. The presidents are in chronological order.
The first striking thing about this graph is the high degree of overlap. All presidents,with only three exceptions, spanned the range from 50% approval to 70% approval -- that is, their highest was above 70%, and their lowest was below 50%. In fact, since Johnson, that overlap range is wider still, from a high exceeding 70% to a low under 40%.
The three exceptions to those overlapping ranges are: one Democrat, Kennedy (who never fell below 56% approval) and two Republicans -- Nixon (who never exceeded 67%) and Reagan (who never exceeded 68%).
What can we say about President Obama's "historically low" ratings? They seem, in fact, to be fairly average. That came as a mild surprise. What is more surprising still is that the patron saint of modern Republicans, Ronald Reagan, whom we frequently hear was amazingly beloved, actually had approval ratings that seem mediocre at best. But how bad were they? Read on.
The next graph shows the presidents in order by their highest approval rating. Who hit the highest highs?
One surprise that jumps out here is that the president who hit the
highest high was George W. Bush, at a whopping 92% popularity, which he
hit shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It
seems likely anyone who was president at that moment would have reached
a similar high, but let's be generous and simply acknowledge that the
worst terrorist attack in American history did indeed happen on his
watch, and give him credit for being president at the time.
One other surprise is that the beloved Ronald Reagan isn't anywhere near the top. In fact, he's almost at the bottom. The only president with a lower high point is Richard Nixon, and Reagan beat Nixon by only a single percentage point. That's saying something.
And Barack Obama, with his "historically low" ratings? He is nearly smack in the middle, with seven Presidents showing higher highs, and five with lower highs. Eisenhower, who occupies the center seat, had a high of 79%, beating Obama's high of 76% by a statistically insignificant three percentage points, only two points more than the margin by which Reagan beat Nixon.
To be fair, the myth about President Obama's "historically low" ratings isn't that he was never as popular as other presidents. It is that he has achieved abysmal depths. So let's re-order the presidents by their lowest recorded popularity.
Here we find that the president with the highest low point was John Kennedy, whose popularity never fell below 56%. In fact, only three presidents -- Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower -- have managed to not fall below 40%. The president who hit the lowest mark -- the one with the "historical lows" we keep hearing about -- was not Barack Obama, but George W. Bush, the guy who also hit the highest high. That's a curious fact, and one to which I shall return.
President Obama's abysmal rating? His lowest point is actually amazingly high. Only three presidents -- Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower -- did better. So much for the myth of Obama having "historically low" ratings, eh?
And the beloved Reagan? He's tied for the center point with Lyndon Johnson, both of whom hit a low of 35% approval. Johnson was so unpopular he declined to run for a second full term. All of the presidents with approval lows worse than Johnson and Reagan are generally considered to be among the least effective of modern presidents -- G. H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter (both of whom were unpopular enough to loose their re-election bids), Nixon (forced to resign in disgrace), Truman (a disappointment after Roosevelt), and G. W. Bush (whose ineptitude led to two military quagmires, soaring federal debts, and the worst economic crisis since before any of these presidents were elected).
Looking closer at the curious case of George W. Bush, who has both the highest high point and the lowest low point -- this means he has widest popularity range of all these presidents. Below are two graphs, the first showing the actual approval range of the presidents, listed by the size of those ranges. The second shows the ranges themselves, to give a better feel for the magnitude of the differences.
The most striking thing about these graphs is that the presidents with the widest ranges are usually accorded less respect than the presidents with narrower ranges -- probably because a wider range tends to mean the president in question is likely to have been able to fall lower in popularity, precisely because their range was larger (or, conversely, their range was larger precisely because they fell lower). And indeed, the six presidents with the widest ranges of popularity -- G. W. Bush, Harry Truman, G. H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon -- were also the presidents with the lowest lows in popularity. (Johnson tied with Reagan to achieve the sixth lowest mark.)
An interesting fact about John Kennedy is that he achieved both the narrowest range of popularity rankings, and -- at 56% -- he had, by far, the highest low point. This stands him in stark contrast to G. W. Bush, who had the lowest low, the highest high, and the widest range.
Perhaps Kennedy's narrow range and very high low point are both due to his short time in office. He was, after all, assassinated after less than three years as President. Perhaps he simply didn't have time to become unpopular. Perhaps presidents who are in office longer have more time to achieve both soaring highs and dismal lows.
While that may be a contributing factor, it can't be the whole story. Below is a graph showing the popularity ranges of the presidents, with them listed in order from the longest-serving to the shortest (darker ranges for presidents who served longer). The graph following that shows the lengths of each president's total time in office measured in years. There doesn't seem to be an obvious correlation.
The president with the longest time in office -- FDR -- had a very narrow range of popularity rankings. Only Reagan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had narrower ranges, and two of these -- Reagan and Eisenhower -- served for two entire terms. This means presidents with three of the four narrowest ranges all served two or more complete terms. And while Kennedy did serve a very short term (which might otherwise explain his narrow popularity range), his wasn't the shortest time in office. That distinction is held by Gerald Ford, whose presidency was even shorter than Kennedy's, and whose popularity range is smack in the middle -- six presidents having larger ranges, and six having smaller.
If there is a correlation between length of service and size of popularity range, it would appear to be the opposite of what one might expect. To some extent, presidents whose popularity remains rather stable tend to remain in office the longest.
This isn't a hard and fast rule -- G. W. Bush is a spectacular exception in one direction, JFK in the other, but their situations can both be written off as special cases. JFK was assassinated, so we really don't know how either the full range of his popularity would have played out, nor how long he would have remained in office (would he have had a second term?). Bush's high point was due to the 9/11 attacks which (we have to assume) he had nothing to do with, and so can't take credit for. Both of these presidents therefore had externalities which affected their popularity. We can't know how popular they would have been if not for these history-shaking events.
This also means length of service can't have anything to do with the clear differences between President Obama's popularity and, say, Ronald Reagan's. Though Obama's second term is not yet over, one assumes he will fill it out and serve as long as Reagan did -- and, barring any externalities, the range of his highs and lows is unlikely to change significantly from what it is now. We can therefore draw what are likely to be some safe conclusions.
President Obama's highest popularity rating was rather average for presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, whereas his low point was very good indeed -- fourth highest out of thirteen, or in the top one third.
President Reagan, in contrast, had a low point that was right in the middle of the pack, tied with Lyndon Johnson's low point, with six presidents doing better and five doing worse. His high point, however, was absolutely dismal, beating only Richard Nixon, and that only by a single point.
The conclusion? Whereas President Obama's approval rating can be considered somewhere between average and very good, the beloved Reagan's must be ranked average to terrible.
Further, think about the evidence provided by the presidents who reached the highest approval ratings -- G. W. Bush, G. H. W. Bush, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Four of these -- the two Bushes, Truman, and Johnson -- also had four of the five greatest overall ranges in popularity. And three of them (the Bushes and Truman) were among the five lowest popularity ratings (those five being G. W. Bush, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and G. H. W. Bush). What does this mean, that the same presidents who scored highest also tended to score lowest?
Probably it means that presidential popularity is a pretty meaningless measure. The popularity at any given moment, or any given extreme, may have nothing to do with what comes after, or what went before.
Reagan's dismal popularity performance, coupled with the near-worship of modern Republicans, also implies that a president's popularity while in office may have little resemblance to the myths that are formed once that time in office is done.
And the persistent and false meme about President Obama's "historically low" popularity shows the myths may be unrelated to reality even while a president is still in the White House.