Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

obama-approval

President Obama speaks at a rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago on January 11, 2012. (Photo: Max Herman/Shutterstock)

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

• July 28, 2014 • 8:00 AM

President Obama speaks at a rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago on January 11, 2012. (Photo: Max Herman/Shutterstock)

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.

In one of my excursions this summer, I met a gentleman who asked me an interesting question, but we never really had a chance to discuss the answer. So this post is my chance to try to do that. The question was, roughly:

The country seems to be running well and Obama has a solid record of accomplishment. So why isn’t he more popular?

It’s a good question with a number of moving parts, which I’ll address in turn.

First, let’s dismiss the simple answers: It’s not because of racism or polarization. Obama’s approval ratings have been very stable for most of his term, usually hovering within a few points of 45 percent. But he came into office with approval ratings near 70 percent, even though it’s hard to imagine any of the respondents not knowing his race. And the country wasn’t really much less polarized in 2009 than it is today.

(Polarization actually cuts both ways on presidential popularity. Yes, it makes it harder for Obama to win over Republicans—a large percentage of them really do see him as a threat to the nation. But it also means that it’s easier for him to have the backing of all Democrats.)

Particularly in an era of a polarized Congress and media, most legislative achievements are going to make nearly as many enemies as supporters.

Now, as for the part of the question about the country running well…. As I and many others have written, presidential popularity and national election results are strongly related to the performance of the economy. And the economy has actually been turning out fairly good numbers recently. Jobless claims are down and economic growth is surging. So why hasn’t this benefited Obama politically?

Basically, because the good news is relatively new. The American economy is still emerging from the shadow of the worst crash since the Great Depression, and the recovery up until very recently has been rather paltry. Remember, GDP growth in the first quarter of this year was actually negative. And even consistently strong growth takes a while to affect voters’ impressions of the economy and the political system.

Below is a graph I made for a paper in graduate school in 2000. (It took some digging.) It charts two trends: growth in real disposable income from 1996 to 1999, and public opinion on the economy during the same time. The economy was growing very strongly throughout this period. Real disposable income grew steadily at an annual rate of roughly 5.5 percent, never dropping below 4.3 percent. But it took years of this sustained growth for a majority of Americans to classify the economy as “good” or “excellent.” And this was roughly six years after the most recent recession had ended.

lagged economic approval

That is to say, it takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.

The other part of the question above concerns Obama’s record of accomplishment. Indeed, he does have a good record. If you include health care reform, financial reform, student loan reform, passage of a massive economic stimulus that may well have prevented a depression, withdrawal from multiple wars, etc., his is probably the most accomplished Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson’s. So why doesn’t he get credit for that?

Because voters aren’t necessarily impressed with accomplishment. In that list of accomplishments above, very few are automatic crowd pleasers. Particularly in an era of a polarized Congress and media, most legislative achievements are going to make nearly as many enemies as supporters. Political observers often look back in awe at LBJ’s impressive accomplishments in 1964 and ’65, including Medicare, Medicaid, and landmark civil rights legislation, but how did voters reward him in the following election cycles? They punished his party in the 1966 mid-terms, and he was so unpopular by 1968 that he declined to run for re-election rather than face voters’ wrath.

So if you want to understand Obama’s relatively paltry approval ratings as of mid-2014, just note that the economy has only been functioning well very recently, and that legislative accomplishments, while important, can win as many detractors as friends. My guess is that if we see continued reasonably strong economic growth in the next year or two, we’ll see his approval ratings rise into the 50s, perhaps even the 60s. (And if the 1990s are any guide, Republicans could accelerate this process by impeaching Obama.) But for now, Obama’s approval ratings aren’t likely to shift much, and that’s something Democrats will just have to deal with as the mid-term elections approach.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.