Nathan Sass

Obama’s Disapproval Problem

In 2012 Elections, Barack Obama, Politics on February 29, 2012 at 2:03 PM

The media and punditry like to reference Presidential Approval numbers a lot.  Conventional wisdom states that it is the best indicator to the viability of a sitting President seeking re-election.

I believe there is another equally important, and often overlooked, indicator – Presidential Dissaproval.

It is not accurate to state that approval and disapproval always sum up to 100%.  In fact, they almost never do because of “No Opinion” results.  This allows us to independently analyze approval and disapproval to a certain extent.

Since I almost never see any historical comparisons of disapproval numbers I ventured onto the inter-web and looked up some data.  In order to do historical comparisons, I restricted my data sets to only Gallup’s results.  In years past, Gallup was the only entity tracking these numbers, so comparing 1982 Gallup numbers to 2010 Rasmussen seemed inappropriate.

I examined 3 Presidents – Carter, Reagan and Obama.  All three faced similar issues over the course of their first terms (poor economic performance, middle eastern unrest and high unemployment).  All 3 were also “transformative” Presidents representing a large change from the previous POTUS.

Carter’s election  was the nations response to the previous GOP occupant(s) of the White House, and like Obama was as much an expression of discontent with the GOP as support for his politics and policies.

Reagan was a similar reaction to Carter’s 4 years in office, and was also an expression of dissatisfaction with the other party.  His first election win was more about personality than policy, like Carter before him.  (His re-election was an expression of policy support more than personality, however.)

Obama’s election is strikingly similar to Carter’s.  Like Carter, he (largely) ran against a previous occupant not on the ballot (Nixon/Bush 43).  Like Carter he ran a campaign more centered on being a transformational personality than specific policy as evidenced best by their respective slogans (“A Leader for a Change”/”Hope and Change”)

Including Reagan in the comparison was done to juxtapose a successfully re-elected President against a single term President, in an effort to look for predictors as it relates to Obama’s chances for re-election.

With all that explanation aside, on to the numbers.

First we note that all 3 men saw their disapproval numbers rise over 50% by the 2nd year of their term, as one would expect given the challenges all 3 men faced:

  • Obama was the first  to break 50% in month 21 of his term.
  • Reagan broke through 50% in month 24
  • Carter eclipsed 50% disapproval in month 29.

We can conclude that Obama has the worst disapproval performance of the 3 men.  This is a bad sign for Obama, signaling that public grew disillusioned with him far more rapidly than either Carter or Reagan even in very similar poor economic conditions.

There were significant differences in the amount of time near or above 50% disapproval:

  • Reagan spent only 3 months from this point with a disapproval over 50%, and then saw his number fall from that point forward.
  • Carter remained near or above 50% disapproval for the majority of the rest of his presidency, only briefly falling below 50% for 4 months.
  • Obama, like Carter, has not moved much below the 50% mark since first hitting it in month 21, dropping to 40% for only one month and then returning to the 50% range.

We can conclude that Obama’s performance to date is far more similar to Carter than Reagan.  This is not a good harbinger for Obama, and points to a difficult re-election bid similar to the one Carter faced.


There are very different overall trends visible in the charting of the data, as you can see at the end of the post.  These overall trends are what must give the Obama team the most sleepless nights.

Obama and Carter show very similar overall trends and values over the same period of time.  In fact, Carter actually outperforms Obama for much of the comparable period.

This means that if we consider this data to be just as significant a predictor as approval rating, Obama is in deep, deep trouble.

The electorate has remained very dissatisfied with Obama as the President, and he is showing no real improvement similar to the improvement shown by Reagan.

While there is certainly time for this to change, there is no guarantee it will.  The longer the numbers stay over 50%, the more firm that disapproval becomes.  It will be harder to change minds after such a prolonged period.  People, generally, are not prone to change a long held opinion without some significant outside influence.

There is no guarantee that even if there is a national disaster, terrorist attack, or major conflict that develops between now and November Obama’s numbers would improve, either.  If he handles such an event poorly, or even just adequately, it will reinforce many people’s negative opinion of him.  In the event of a terrorist event or war, he may even be blamed more than he is supported.

Economic improvement can not be counted on to improve the President’s numbers, either.  Any improvement will most likely be too gradual, and may not be attributed to him personally by those who have long disapproved of him.  It is possible that we could see dramatic improvement following a specific policy initiative, but given Obama’s unwillingness to work with the GOP controlled House, those odds must be considered low.

Finally, largely positive (or at least not negative/critical) coverage of Obama by the media has been occurring since the start of his term, and even that has not prevented his numbers from slipping to the dangerous levels.

As election season approaches, the media will be less able to control to conversation and tone, and the GOP candidate will spend hundreds of millions of dollars reminding the public why they disapprove of  (or should disapprove of) Obama, further hurting his numbers.

After reviewing the data and considering the factors, I am forced to conclude that Obama’s re-election chances are not very good at this point in time.  It is far too soon to say he has no real chance, but that time is approaching quickly and he is not showing any real improvement.

Obama has been in campaign mode for some time with no real positive results to speak of.  Furthermore, the GOP primaries have been the worst possible scenario for the GOP, with a lot of in-fighting and negative campaigning making Obama attractive by comparison.  That will soon stop and leave Obama only one GOP opponent who will do all he can to focus the public attention on Obama and his record.

If Obama cannot improve his numbers dramatically now, given marginal improvement in some economic data and a GOP circular firing squad, it is far from likely that he can do so in a one on one contest with a well funded opposition.

If I were the DNC, I would look at these numbers and be very concerned.  In my opinion, they are best served by focusing their efforts on winnable Senate seats and leave Obama to fend for himself (more or less).  If he improves, the DNC can always re-focus, but the likelihood is that he will not, and Senate control will be paramount for the Democrats to deal with a new GOP President.

Sadly for the DNC, barring any surprising change, Obama will likely have negative coat-tails and retaining control of the Senate will not be an easy task.

Obama has been described as Carter’s Second Term or Jimmy Carter Part II, and from the looks of the numbers, that may be unfair… Jimmy Carter.




Obama Gallup

Reagan Gallup

Carter Gallup


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