Approval By Numbers: How Obama Compares To Past Presidents

By some measures, it’s been a rough first two years in office for President Obama, as the soaring rhetoric of his campaign speeches has given way to the unglamorous reality of governing. With the messy debate over health care reform and a slowly recovering economy steadily tugging his approval ratings down, it may seem like Obama is slipping toward a uniquely inglorious first term.

Yet despite all the chatter, Obama’s slide in approval ratings is really nothing special.According to an analysis of Gallup’s presidential polling data, the general trend of Obama’s approval ratings closely resemble those of other modern Presidents over their first two years in office.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Approval By Numbers: How Obama Compares To Past Presidents.]

A look at how Obama fares over his first two years versus every President since Dwight Eisenhower provides a slightly jumbled comparison, yet there’s an evident downward trend for almost everyone.

In fact, the early drop in Obama’s approval is strikingly similar to that of two historically popular former presidents — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The trend line of Obama’s approval rating is nearly identical to Ronald Reagan’s. Both Presidents slumped in their first two years, suffering large midterm losses; Republicans lost 26 seats in the House under Reagan in 1982, while Democrats lost 63 this year.

Similarly, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings sank in his first two years in office, and in 1994 Democrats lost control of both the House and Senate.

Yet both Reagan and Clinton went on to win reelection, and, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this week, they still remain widely popular. Of the approximately 1,000 adults surveyed nationwide, 74% said they approved of how Reagan handled his presidency, while Clinton received a 69% approval rating. Only John F. Kennedy, with an 85% approval rating, polled higher.

The approval ratings for Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford also follow a path resembling Obama’s. Ford’s approval plummeted when he pardoned Richard Nixon but, after leveling off, it trended down on par with other presidents’.

The first two years of both Bush presidencies are a bit trickier. The spikes in George H. W. Bush’s approval correspond nicely to the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989) and the start of the Gulf War (August 1990.) George W. Bush got an enormous boost in his approval rating following 9/11. However, while those events caused sudden, dramatic gains in support, the trend lines then slide similarly to those of other Presidents, including Obama.

Editor’s Note: The data used for these charts comes from an analysis of Gallup’s presidential approval tracking polls. Since polling frequency was not uniform, TPM compared the final poll conducted each month for the first two years of every presidency, beginning with a poll taken at the time of inauguration, when available.

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