President Obama is 5-for-5, but not in the way he’d prefer. In baseball, 5-for-5 signifies perfection. In Obama’s case, it means the opposite. On the five most important polling questions that measure a president’s success, he’s not only dropped significantly, but he’s now regarded negatively overall.
The five yardsticks are presidential job approval, honesty, handling of
the economy, strong leadership, and the public’s impression of him personally. Being underwater on all five is extraordinary, if not unprecedented.
For presidents, the five measures don’t ordinarily rise or fall in tandem. President George W. Bush’s job approval tanked, but he was seen as a strong leader. President Bill Clinton was distrusted, but maintained high job approval. President Jimmy Carter was trusted, but sank in job approval and was judged a weak leader.
That Obama’s poll numbers have plunged across the board indicates recovery will be very difficult. Presidents who skid downward in their second term are rarely able to turn their fortunes around. Obama’s decline is similar to George W. Bush’s. “The parallels,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, “are downright eerie.”
The country was divided in the first year of Bush’s second term. Then an event—Katrina—raised questions about the president’s competence and ability, and disapproval set in. “Once the approval and disapproval lines cross, the trust he enjoyed . . .is undermined, and he never again wins majority approval of his job performance,” Ayres wrote in National Review Online.
Those lines have crossed for Obama, most destructively on job approval and trustworthiness. “There’s no question that job approval is the most important by far,” says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “It is the ultimate summary statistic—a prism through which we get a sense of everything, how the country’s going, the economy, the president himself all rolled into one. . . . The other measures are interesting, but they are a ‘slice of life.’ As Carter showed, you can be trusted and personally liked but still lose.”
What makes a president’s job approval all the more crucial is its correlation with how his party does in elections. Obama’s approval has tumbled into the low 40s and the high 30s in polls by CBS News, Reuters, and the Economist/YouGov. If those numbers hold, he will be a huge drag on Democratic candidates in 2014. If they improve, so will Democratic prospects.
The matter of honesty and trust is nearly as serious as job approval. For Obama, the problem here is his statement, made repeatedly before and after Obamacare was enacted, that anyone who liked his health care plan would be able to keep it.
This happened to be the only one of several promises Obama made about his health reform that the public believed. North Star Opinion Research discovered this last March in a poll for the YG Network. People dismissed as untrue Obama’s vows that Obamacare would not add to the federal deficit, would save families $2,500 a year in health insurance, not require cuts in Medicare, and not lead to a doctor shortage or rationing.
The promise to let individuals keep their current insurance was different. It was deemed true by a 64 to 27 percent margin. And when it became clear this claim was false, the reaction was poisonous for the president. His credibility was shattered.
Obama has tried to explain away his promise, soften it, and put the blame on insurance companies. His excuses haven’t helped. “Once you break people’s trust, it’s hard to resurrect it,” Ayres told me. So Obama is likely to have a credibility problem for the remainder of his presidency.
On his handling of the economy, Obama’s rating matches his job approval. It’s lower than ever. His frequent announcements that he intended to “pivot” to emphasize improving the economy have fallen flat as growth and job creation continue to stagnate.
Meanwhile, rejection of the notion of Obama as a strong leader has become a staple of national poll results. Most Americans want a strong leader in the White House, and they aren’t finding one in Obama.
The fifth category is trickiest. It involves how people feel about Obama, the individual. Most polls show people like him. But when asked about their “impression” of him or whether he “inspires” them or if they “admire” him, they react more negatively than positively. This is new. Until recently, the president had gotten higher marks on this measure than on job approval.