The ups and downs of being president. Photographer: John Moore/Pool via Bloomberg News
The ups and downs of being president. Photographer: John Moore/Pool via Bloomberg News

I haven’t run an item on one of my longtime running topics, the comparison of Barack Obama and George W. Bush’s approval ratings, because it got boring for a while, with Obama pulling firmly ahead. Well, it’s time for an update, because it’s interesting again -- probably (although of course we can’t know for sure) for the last time.

Here’s the story: After a long stretch in which Bush and Obama were essentially tied for the period of May in their fourth years in office (2004, 2012) through February in their sixth years (2006, 2014), Obama finally pulled ahead of Bush, peaking -- at least according to Gallup -- at close to a 15-point approval gap. Not, to be sure, because Obama was improving; the big movement was Bush’s approval rating tanking in 2006. However, Bush had one last rally remaining. An Aug. 18-20 survey put him at 42 percent approval; it was followed (Sept. 7-10) by a reading at 39, and then one (Sept. 15-17) at 44 percent approval. That was Bush’s last Gallup poll rating over 40; after that, he slipped and pretty much continued slipping, eventually spending most of 2008 below 30 percent.

What about Obama? He’s at 43 percent today in the Gallup tracker, as well as in the Pollster estimate. The trend is pretty much as flat as it can be. According to Pollster’s main chart, Obama is exactly where he was back in October, and he hasn’t moved as much as a full percentage point in either direction since. If that estimate (using Pollster’s regular setting) is correct, Obama is on a very slight downhill slope right now and has been since mid-April; however, using Pollster’s “less smoothing” option, which is more sensitive to recent changes, Obama’s spring slump ended a month ago, and, if anything, he’s now trending slightly up. None of which is really worth fighting about; it’s easiest just to say that he’s been flat for almost a year now.

Of course, there’s no way at all to predict what comes next. I’d say it’s highly unlikely that Obama’s approval ratings will deteriorate in his last two years the way Bush’s did, unless events (the economy, scandals, trouble abroad) change for the worse. On the other hand, while a modest recovery wouldn’t be a surprise, anything more than that also seems unlikely; he should continue to run well behind Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton at the same points in their presidencies, and he’s unlikely to come close to Ronald Reagan, either, despite Reagan’s significant slump in his seventh year.

Anyway, there are no great conclusions from any of this; this is mostly just political junkie stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Obama continues to be a somewhat unpopular president, but he has never come close to matching the lows of the least popular presidents. He’s been flat for almost a year now; beware those who constantly have him falling, because that’s not accurate. However, he’s certainly more of a problem than a plus for Democrats running this year.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.