Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grim numbers and meaningless comparisons

A new Gallop poll limns a grim picture of President Obama's political performance:
Barack Obama averaged 44.7% job approval during the seventh quarter of his presidency. His average approval rating has declined each quarter since he took office, falling by more than two percentage points in the most recent quarter to establish a new low.

. . .

Obama's decreased popularity is also evident in his favorable rating. . . For the first time, more Americans view the president unfavorably (50%) than favorably (47%), and his favorable rating is the lowest of his presidency.

. . .

Since his inauguration, positive opinions of him have declined by 31 points.

. . .

[A]t this point in his presidency, 39% of Americans believe Obama deserves re-election and 54% say he does not. Earlier this year, between 46% and 48% of Americans said Obama should be re-elected.
This is obviously terrible news for Team Obama, both as a snapshot of his current standing and in terms of the big picture of a long term trend.

Gallop's comparisons of Obama's numbers to those of other contemporary presidents, however, while superficially interesting, strike me as pretty meaningless on reflection. For example,
By comparison, in September 2002, 62% of Americans thought George W. Bush deserved re-election. Two years after his party's strong showing in the 2002 midterms, Bush won a narrow victory over John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
I'm not sure this tells us much, as these numbers are highly sensitive to conditions over which a president has little or no control. In September of 2002, the country was observing the first anniversary of a devastating attack on American soil. Emotions were still raw. Under those circumstances, I would expect Americans to rally solidly behind their president, no matter who he was. By 2004, memories of the attack were starting to fade, rationales for the war in Iraq were being questioned with brutal partisanship ("Bush lied; men died"), and the media kept a running tally of American casualties. What president would have maintained wide spread support under such a barrage?

Obama came into office riding a wave of singular support. Not only was he replacing an extremely unpopular president, but as the first black president, he enjoyed an unprecedented degree of goodwill, even from those who opposed him. How could he not fall from such lofty heights as the realities of governing set in and the practicalities of politics reasserted themselves? As the economy has continued to founder, would any president not see his image and support plummet along with it?

It's true that both Bush and Obama had a hand in their fortunes. Bush chose to wage the war; Obama chose to impose unpopular policies. But every president acts in a different role upon a different stage and must find his motivation in a plot largely driven by external players.

These numbers may tell us something about how well Obama is doing, but comparisons to this or that other president at "this point" in his presidency seem rather vacuous. I expect Republicans will try to make hay out of these comparisons, but there really is no such thing as "this point" in someone else's presidency.

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