Barack Obama’s Very Typical Approval Rating

Matt Bai wants of the dangers of Barack Obama’s approach “while the president’s own approval ratings fell below 50 percent — an ominous sign, historically speaking, for a majority party.”

But as Brendan Nyhan observes, there’s nothing unusual or historically revealing about Obama’s approval rating:

Obama’s approval trajectory (in purple) is tightly clustered with five of the last seven presidents. Only two of those seven — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — had significantly higher approval ratings at this point, and neither is an especially compelling counter-example: Bush 43’s approval ratings were artificially inflated by 9/11, and Bush 41 was not re-elected. You simply can’t predict the fortunes of a president by their approval ratings at this point in their first term.

Now it’s of course true that Democrats are going to face giant losses in the House. To reach that conclusion you start not with Obama’s approval rating but with the large number of seats the House Democrats currently hold. If the nation returns to 50:50 equilibrium, that would mean big Democratic losses. Add to that the fact that the GOP has a slight advantage in turning votes into seats, the fact that the president’s party almost always loses in the midterms, the fact that the midterm electorate is usually more conservative than the presidential election electorate, and the high unemployment rate and you’re looking at a very bleak outlook.


For my part, it strikes me that Obama’s ratings are a bit oddly high given the bleak conditions in the country. It’s clear that a very large number of people are still basically blaming Bush for the situation.