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Yes, Obama’s Approval Ratings Are Declining. What Did You Expect?

This is the first paragraph of a commentary by Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen in today’s Wall Street Journal:

It is simply wrong for commentators to continue to focus on President Barack Obama’s high levels of popularity, and to conclude that these are indicative of high levels of public confidence in the work of his administration. Indeed, a detailed look at recent survey data shows that the opposite is most likely true. The American people are coming to express increasingly significant doubts about his initiatives, and most likely support a different agenda and different policies from those that the Obama administration has advanced.

Scott is an extremely fair-minded guy and someone whom we have partnered with in the past. I don’t know Doug Schoen, other than that he’s Mark Penn’s business partner. In any event, I think their lede is just wrong. Barack Obama’s Gallup approval ratings, as of this afternoon, are 62 percent approve and 27 percent disapprove. Those are pretty good scores. The average of all Gallup approval ratings taken for all Presidents, going all the way back to 1937, is 54.9 percent approve and 35.2 percent disapprove; Obama is about 8 points ahead of those numbers on either side. He is notably more popular than an American president usually is, and it would therefore stand to reason that he has proportionately more power than average to advance his agenda. It is not wrong for commentators to notate this fact.

Now, what is true is that Obama’s ratings have been declining some … actually his approval ratings haven’t been declining that much, but his disapproval scores have been increasing:

I segregate out Rasmussen’s approval numbers from the other polls because they’ve been very different from the rest, generally showing disapproval scores about 10 points higher than the other agencies and approval scores a couple of points lower. Unlike with horse race polling, where all the pollsters are ultimately subject to a pop quiz in the form of an election, there is no obvious way to validate whether an approval poll is right or wrong. That makes it particularly important to pay attention to house effects. Rasmussen’s approval ratings for Obama have been different from the other agencies, and/but, they’ve been consistently and predictably different. In any event, both the Rasmussen and non-Rasmussen data series ultimately show the same pattern: Obama’s disapproval ratings have increased over time.

As we pointed out a couple of days ago, moreover, Obama’s approval ratings are now fairly average for someone 50 days or so into his Presidency; this is the chart we produced at this time:

A well-rounded commentary on Barack Obama popularity would take note of this context. It would also disclaim, however, that Obama’s first 50 days have been anything other than typical. A typical president, 50 days or so into his term, is choosing the drapes for the Lincoln Bedroom and picking out a puppy dog — generally unobjectionable sorts of activities. Obama has chosen to put forward nearly the entirely of his agenda. One can make the case that Obama has attempted to push his agenda further in 50 days than most Presidents do in a year. Let’s take that proposition somewhat literally: what do a President’s approval ratings typically look like a year or so into his term?

In his first year in office, a President’s approval ratings typically decline by about 3 points from the time of his inauguration, while his disapproval ratings typically climb by about 12 points. That is fairly close to the magnitude of change that Barack Obama’s numbers have experienced. True, he’s lost that ground in 50 days rather than 365. But here, I suppose, is the point:

This is all completely predictable. Barack Obama didn’t get elected with 60 or 65 percent of the vote — he got elected with about 53 percent of the vote. As the warm and fuzzy feelings surrounding his inauguration wane and are replaced by an actual attempt to put forward a actual political agenda, it is not surprising that his approval ratings gravitate toward that anchor established during the election.

Most Americans support most parts of Obama’s agenda — particularly the ideas of moving toward more universal health care, applying both carrots and sticks in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, making the tax code more progressive, permitting stem cell research, withdrawing troops from Iraq, and stimulating the economy. But not all Americans do, and as Obama attempts to actuate that agenda, it’s not surprising that some of them are beginning to make those feelings known.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.