Barack Obama is not popular. This plain and simple fact may surprise those who read only legacy journalists, who often elide this inconvenient truth. A recent Associated Press write-up is illustrative:
Even as the public remains closely divided about his presidency, Barack Obama is holding on to his support from the so-called “Obama coalition” of minorities, liberals and young Americans, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows, creating an incentive for the next Democratic presidential nominee to stick with him and his policies.
Obama’s job approval in this poll was a paltry 43 percent, with 55 percent disapproval. This is hardly a public “closely divided,” but it is typical of the media’s approach. They prefer to gloss over his bad numbers, point out the weakness of the GOP, or emphasize how popular he is among Democrats.
But ignoring a fact does not make it any less true. Obama is unpopular, and he has been unpopular for a while. The most straightforward definition of a popular president is one who garners at least 50 percent approval in public opinion polls. The last time Obama hit that mark in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls was April 2013. Excepting brief boosts corresponding to his reelection and the killing of Osama bin Laden, he has consistently been under 50 percent in the RCP average since December 2009. This makes him one of the least popular presidents in postwar history.
Gallup has kept regular track of presidential approval since the Truman administration. It reports that the most popular postwar presidents were Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton; their job approval ratings were 50 percent or better for at least two-thirds of their tenures. The least popular presidents were Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter; theirs were below 50 percent for at least two-thirds of their tenures. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush fall somewhere in between.
To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure. If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.
Obama’s numbers have been remarkably stable, typically hovering between 42 and 45 percent approval, outside those honeymoon periods. This distinguishes him from Truman, Ford, and Carter, whose numbers sunk much lower (as did George W. Bush’s and Nixon’s). The difference is that Obama has retained strong support from Democrats, while other presidents lost substantial intraparty support. With Obama at the helm, the Democratic party is as united as it has been since the mid-1930s. Will Rogers’ famous quip—“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”—is no longer apt. Democratic disunity was evident as late as 2000, when Ralph Nader poached a decisive share of the progressive vote from Al Gore, but it is no more.
Democratic loyalists (which includes voters who identify as independent but reliably vote Democrat) are a solid 5 to 8 points short of an outright majority, however, contradicting boasts from party operatives that demographics give them a lock on the White House. Most public opinion polls sample adults, who tend to be more Democratic than actual voters, yet still consistently show the president falling quite short of 50 percent. If Obama were indeed the herald of an enduring Democratic majority, we should see this first and foremost in the RCP average. But in fact, we find the opposite: The president, while holding his base together, has nevertheless alienated the critical mass of independent voters who determine elections.
Historically speaking, changes in presidential job approval track fairly closely with three factors: a war going badly, scandal, and recession. When any of these occurs, presidential approval falls. When several happen at once—as with Truman, Nixon, and George W. Bush—presidential approval can fall very low indeed. Yet Obama’s tenure has not seen such problems, at least not to the extent past presidents have. Sure, the rise of ISIS is terrible, the IRS targeting conservative groups is highly objectionable, and the economy remains mired in weakness. But none compares to Vietnam in 1967, Watergate in 1974, or the economy in 2008.