Is Obama really doing worse than Bush and Nixon?
Obama's dismal poll numbers are prompting dire predictions about what's in store for the rest of his presidency
One year removed from a comfortable reelection, President Obama is now mired in the lowest point, at least in terms of public opinion, of his presidency.
Battered by a litany of bad headlines, the president's approval rating has steadily fallen throughout the year, bottoming out in recent weeks in the low 40s. In a Washington Post/ABC poll released Tuesday, 43 percent of Americans said they approved of Obama's job performance, while 55 percent disapproved.
Given that trend, Obama's sputtering presidency is drawing comparisons to those of other recent presidents with dismal second terms. In particular, Obama's presidency has been likened to that of George W. Bush, since the two presidents' second term approval ratings charted strikingly similar paths.
Yet while Obama's woes are quite serious, the hyperventilating comparisons overstate the degree to which he is in jeopardy of going the way of his predecessor.
To be sure, Obama is hardly in a good place for a second-term president with an ambitious agenda. He's been dogged all year by mini-scandals and a do-nothing Congress, culminating with the government shutdown and, more pertinently, ObamaCare's disastrous rollout. In November, a majority of Americans for the first time didn't find Obama honest or trustworthy, a supposed death knell, some said, for Obama's presidency.
"Once a president suffers a blow such as Obama is now suffering with his health-care law, it is difficult to recover," wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, adding that it was "starting to look as if it may be game over."
Yet one month removed from that prognostication, there are signs Obama could be about to turn his presidency around.
On an important front, Obama has already regained the public trust. According to the last Post/ABC survey, majorities once again think Obama is honest and that he understands the problems of regular people. And though Obama's approval rating is still horrendous, it appears to have at least plateaued.
Focusing solely on the raw polling numbers though, sans context, Obama's presidency does stack up unfavorably to that of past presidents. As Business Insider noted, Obama's approval rating is the lowest for a president at this point in his tenure since Richard Nixon and his Watergate-fueled 29 percent.
But that's a horribly misleading comparison.
Of the six presidents in between Nixon and Obama, three never served a second term and so don't fit into the comparison. And though George W. Bush had a marginally better approval rating in the Post's final 2005 poll, his numbers overall were right in line with where Obama's are now. (Obama has a marginal edge at present per Gallup, for instance.)
So, to rephrase the Nixon comparison with those qualifiers in mind: Obama's approval rating is tied or better than that of all but two of the past five two-term presidents through this point in their presidencies. Not so dire (and clicky) now, is it?
Moreover, these reductive comparisons tend to strip out necessary context.
Bush's poll numbers post-Katrina only soured as the Iraq War worsened and Americans turned, in huge numbers, against it. Obama's biggest blow this year, by contrast, was the terrible debut of his health care law.
A continuous stream of bad headlines about ObamaCare could certainly further erode the president's standing over the coming months and years. On the other hand, ObamaCare is finally on the mend. Enrollments are, though still below expectations, surging. And polls have shown the public beginning to come around on the health care law. A recent CBS/New York Times survey, for instance, found that opposition to ObamaCare had dropped a net 19 points since mid-November.
If the health care law continues to improve — or if any number of other things go right for Obama — the doldrums of late 2013 could quickly become a thing of the past. It's worth noting that Obama's approval rating fell to near-record lows in 2011, only to surge back into positive territory one year later.
There is a tendency in political prognosticating to miss the forest for the trees. Obama is in historically bad shape now (trees), but his circumstances are vastly different from those of his predecessors, and there are signs he could soon turn things around (forest).
Obama does, after all, have three years left in the White House to chart his own course.