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A little more on first-year presidential approval ratings

A little more on first-year presidential approval ratings

It’s still the economy, stupid.

When I wrote yesterday about Pres. Obama’s approval rating struggles, I had a call in to Charles Franklin of and the U of Wisconsin. He got back tome after I posted but I wanted to add his excellent insights, which he also summarized on Pollster two weeks ago.

Overall, Obama’s first year approval numbers are among the worst of post-World War II presidents. Only Clinton and Reagan might be worse. But Reagan and Clinton are also among the most successful of recent presidents when it came time to seek reelection. Therefore, Franklin concludes that the most common and simplest mistakes political analysts make is to think that first-year approval ratings are a valuable indicator of a president’s reelection chances.

Franklin also notes that if you throw out the first three months (when Obama was very high), Obama has been tracking very closely with the year 1 approval ratings of Ronald Reagan, and both were suffering low approval. Franklin, who titled his piece “Obama as Reagan,” argues that their common point (Clinton too, now that you mention it) was a lousy economy. (Yes, Reagan and Clinton, too, could and did argue that they inherited the mess from their predecessors and needed time to allow their economic policies to turn things around).

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Of course, by reelection time, leaving aside the interminable dispute about how much White House policies affect the economy, both were presiding over booming economic growth and were rewarded with landslide or near-landslide reelections. (In case you didn’t recognize it, “it’s the economy, stupid,” is a Clintonism.)

By the way, in the first-term mid-term election under both Reagan and Clinton, the president’s party got clobbered. Reagan’s Repubs, who weren’t even in the majority, lost 22 House seats in the midterm. Clinton’s Dems suffered a historic 54-seat drop and lost control of the House. Franklin notes that the signs of economic recovery seem to be starting a bit earlier in Obama’s term than they did in Reagan’s which, if it continues, could help the Dems avoid a big loss in the midterms. His conclusion:

“Whether Obama continues to look like Reagan seems to me more likely to be driven by the same force– the economy. While health care reform and Afghanistan will surely play a role in the public’s view of Obama, I think the economy remains the most crucial driver of opinion. In this the administration can hope that the upturn in GDP in the third quarter, and the small down-tick in unemployment in November, are signals that the early quarters of 2010 will see further improvements. If so, the Democrats may avoid the terrible conjunction of midterm and economic bottom that cost Republicans 26 seats in the 1982 House elections. And President Obama may not compete with Reagan to see which will be the second most unpopular president at midterm time. But there are no guarantees of this and the parallels remain quite striking.”