Judging by history, Obama’s legacy will only improve over the next decade.
Presidential approval ratings polls began in the 1930’s with Gallup, and have continued to be a oft referred to statistic for the subsequent eight decades. The poll is generally centered around one question:
“Do you approve or disapprove of the way _____ is handling his job as president?”
Here’s a breakdown courtesy of the Pew Research Center:
Lowest Approval Ratings:
G.W. Bush: 22%
G.H.W. Bush: 29%
L.B.J and Reagan: 35%
Highest Approval Ratings:
G.H.W. Bush: 89%
G.W. Bush: 86%
Eisenhower and L.B.J: 79%
Certain presidents, like both of the Bush’s, experienced massive swings in approval ratings. Following 9/11, G.W. Bush experienced a remarkably high rating of 86%, but upon leaving office in 2008, his rating sank to an dismal 22%. His father peaked even higher at 89% as a result of the apparent success of the Persian Gulf War, but only a year later his approval rating fell dramatically to 29%. Every president since Eisenhower (sans Kennedy) has dipped below the 50% at some point in his presidency.
Only three of our last 11 presidents have managed to stay above the 40% mark for their entire tenure in office: Eisenhower, Kennedy and Obama*. While Obama’s numbers never rose as high as the other two (64% as opposed to 79% D.E. and 83% J.F.K.) his time in office has been a model of consistency. The president with the closest comparable approval stats is Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s high of 68%, bests Obama by four percentage points, but his low of 35% is six percentage points lower than Obama’s. An average of the highs and lows of both men puts Reagan at 51.5% and Obama at 52.5%.
In terms of range, Obama’s is the narrowest of all modern presidents at only 23 percentage points. Reagan and Clinton are tied for second-lowest with 33, followed closely by Ford at 34. Like Reagan, both Clinton and Ford achieved slightly higher highs and slightly lower lows.
So what does this all mean?
Well, historically, presidents with less erratic numbers and lower approval ranges are viewed more positively after they have left office. For example, the low-range presidents we mentioned previously (Ford, Reagan and Clinton) -upon the last Gallup retrospective poll- are all above 60%. Conversely, L.B.J., Nixon and G.W.Bush, all of whom experienced large swings in their approval ratings, are 47% or lower retrospectively. George H.W. Bush is a clear outlier, as he experienced at 60pt swing while in office, but has a 66% retrospective approval rating.
While static, consistent numbers are not exactly legacy predictors outright, there does seem to be a correlation at work here. If a president’s approval rating falls too low, the nation seems less likely to forgive and forget. Now, obviously there are a myriad of potential confounds here as the long-term impact of certain decisions as well as the general social, domestic and geopolitical evolution of the country clearly play a significant role. But the relationship cannot be ignored.
If I were to wager, I’d put money on Obama’s presidential legacy being a very positive one.
*We know Obama’s tenure is not completed, but his approval ratings have increased over the last year and currently sit at 51%, so the odds of his numbers dipping below 40% are highly unlikely.
by Jesse Mechanic