Seth Masket has a nice column pondering why President Barack Obama’s job approval rating remains down in the dumps (HuffPollster’s current estimate is around 43 percent), and concludes that Obama is a victim of a lagging response to the economic recovery.
I think Seth has a somewhat rosier view of the economy than warranted. But I do agree that if events break the right way for the White House, Obama’s approval could reach into the mid-50s before his presidency ends.
Aaron Blake, however, looks at the history of second-term presidents and concludes that Obama won’t recover before November -- or ever.
Barring some major, unforeseen event, the first part of that analysis seems perfectly sound. The second part, however, is based on myth. We only have a handful of two-term presidencies to consider. In the cases of Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, bad news started in the second term and never let up (the same was true for a quasi-two-term president, Lyndon Johnson); their approval ratings tanked accordingly. If Obama is overwhelmed by bad news in the next two years, his approval ratings will surely reflect it.
Yet we have at least one case in which a scandal badly hurt a president, causing his ratings to slide, after which his ratings rallied late in his second term as peace and prosperity dominated the news. President Ronald Reagan's surge doesn’t show up on Blake’s chart, which factors the changes from the summer of a president’s sixth year to his final approval rating, because Reagan's approval rating collapsed a few months after his sixth summer.
Still, Reagan isn't unique. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton -- half of the two-term presidents of the modern polling era -- experienced significant approval rallies during their second terms, although only Ike’s corresponded (mostly) to Blake’s time frame.
Put another way: There are two reasons why approval surges might be impossible late in a president’s second term. One is that good events are no longer possible; the other is that events that would have produced rising popularity earlier in a presidency for some reason can no longer do so in the final years. Evidence from Ike, Reagan and Clinton suggests neither scenario is true. If those presidents' ratings could improve, there's no reason to think Obama's can't.
I have no idea whether Obama’s remaining 30 months or so will produce peace, prosperity and scandal-free government or a cataclysm. If it's the former, chances are the president will also experience higher approval ratings.
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