Obama Opens 2010 Near Historic Low for Sophomore Presidents

This post was written by Neil Newhouse and Jeremy Ruch

President Obama’s job approval in the January 2-4 Gallup Daily tracking was the second lowest in the modern era for Presidents starting their second year in office.  Obama opened the new year with a 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} job approval rating which was marginally higher than President Reagan’s 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} rating at the start of 1982, but lower than the ratings held by both President Carter and President Clinton at the start of their second years.


Obama’s humdrum approval rating is undoubtedly causing anxiety and sleepless nights in the White House and in Democratic Party circles.  An underwhelming approval rating not only diminishes support for Obama’s legislative agenda (see Reform, Health Care), it also has implications for House Democrats’ electoral fortunes.  As Glen Bolger detailed in his post last week, a President’s job approval has a significant effect on his party’s gains or losses in the mid-term House elections.  At 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, Obama’s approval rating sits at the tipping point at which incumbent party losses in the House go from bad to worse.

Moreover, since Gallup first started measuring Presidential job approval, every single President has had a lower job approval on the last poll before their first mid-term election than they did at the beginning of that year.*

Let’s look at the history:

✓    Jimmy Carter opened 1978 with a 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} job approval that eroded to the 40s by October.  Democrats lost 15 House seats in the mid-term elections.

✓    Ronald Reagan’s 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} job approval in January 1982 slipped to 43{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in October.  Republicans went on to lose 26 seats.

✓    Bill Clinton started 1994 with a 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approval rating before sliding to 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in October.  The Democrats’ loss of 52 seats has been well documented.

Of course, mid-term House losses do not seal a President’s fate.  While Carter’s mid-term losses were followed by a failed re-election bid in 1980, both Reagan and Clinton sustained heavy mid-term losses only to rebound and easily win a second term.  For Obama, it’s far too early to make predictions for 2012.  However, the historical downward trajectory of a President’s job approval does not bode well for his legislative agenda or for Democrats’ chances in the 2010 mid-term elections.

*Job Approval numbers for President Franklin D. Roosevelt are only available dating back to 1937, his fifth year in office.  President Lyndon Johnson’s first mid-term election was 1966, his fourth calendar year in office.  President Ford’s first mid-term election was 1974, his first year.

Public Opinion Strategies