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Obama Job Approval Drops to the Nadir of his Presidency: Second Term Implications

REUTERS/Larry Downing- U.S. President Barack Obama arrives aboard Air Force One at Miami International Airport in Florida, November 8, 2013.

Public opinion surveys are snapshots, not forecasts. Still, they can clarify the challenges and opportunities that individuals and organizations face.

The latest round of polls yields a clear conclusion: President Obama has reached the nadir of his presidency and risks diminished relevance for the remainder of his presidency. A politician noted for his ability to recover from setbacks will have to do it again, in circumstances he hasn’t encountered before. Core elements of his coalition are dissatisfied with his performance, and the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act has frayed the bonds of trust he has enjoyed with the American people.

The top-line finding is obvious: Obama’s job approval ratings have fallen roughly 10 points since January, and the trajectory of his second term is much closer to George W. Bush than to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. It’s not hard to see why this is happening. Quinnipiac finds that only 21 percent of the people are satisfied with how things are going in the country; when the NBC/Wall Street Journal asked the well-known right direction/wrong track question, only 22 percent said that we’re headed in the right direction. Only 15 percent of all Americans trust the government in Washington to do the right thing; 84 percent say the federal government gets it right only some of the time or hardly ever.

That’s troubling enough, but what’s beneath the top-line looks even worse. According to the most recent Quinnipiac survey,[1] Hispanics now disapprove of his performance by a margin of 47 to 41 percent, and young adults ages 18 to 29 by 54 to 36 percent. More than two-thirds of Independents disapprove, while self-described moderates, among whom Obama has done well in the past, are now no better than evenly split.

The Pew Research Center finds that Obama’s approval has declined sharply since the beginning of the year on every major issue. The president receives strongly negative ratings for his handling of nearly every issue, with the sole exception of terrorism. Fully 65 percent of the people now disapprove of his handling of the economy. Quinnipiac finds the overall pattern and offers some insight into specific groups in the electorate. By a margin of 52 to 44 percent, Hispanics say they disapprove of the way the president is handling immigration issues. As for young adults, who have been battered by the Great Recession and halting recovery in the labor market, only 37 percent approve of the way he is handling the economy, and only 32 percent think it’s improving. More Americans trust the wildly unpopular congressional Republicans than Obama to handle the economy and the federal budget, and the president achieves no better than a tie with them for health care and immigration.

What should concern the president and his advisors the most is the decline in his personal standing. For the first time, fewer than half the people think that he is a strong leader and cares about their needs and problems. Only 43 percent believe that the Obama administration has run the government competently, compared to 53 percent who don’t. 51 percent don’t think that the president is paying enough attention to what his administration is doing.

Worst of all, only 44 percent think that Obama is honest and trustworthy; 52 percent disagree. Only 43 percent of young people think he is, and only 51 percent of Latinos. Fully 49 percent of Latinos are now willing to say that they don’t regard the president as honest and worthy of their trust.

The decline of trust and confidence is a dagger aimed at the heart of Obama’s presidency. If the president fails to act effectively to reverse this trend, he will find it very difficult to mobilize public support for his second-term agenda, and congressional Democrats, who have remained remarkably united, may begin to splinter.

Obama is fond of saying that he’ll never be on the ballot again and is prepared to take the long view. Democratic senators running for reelection in red and purple states don’t have that luxury, and the decline in the president’s national standing is beginning to hurt them back at home. They’re all in the same boat, and congressional Democrats must hope that Obama starts rowing a lot harder in the right direction.



[1] After this piece was posted earlier today, Quinnipiac University released a new survey that corroborates how damaging the past six weeks have been for Democrats. On October 1, Democrats held a 9-point lead, 43 to 34 percent, in the generic ballot for next year’s mid-term elections.  That lead has disappeared, and the parties are now tied, 39-39.

  • The Democrats’ lead among Hispanics is down to 6 points, 41 to 35 percent.
  • Republicans hold a statistically insignificant 1 point lead, 37 to 36 percent, among young adults, once the heart of the Obama coalition.

This is not to say that the American people have suddenly fallen in love with the Republican Party.  In May, 35 percent had a favorable impression of the GOP, while 50 percent were unfavorable.  Today, the public’s opinion splits 31 to 54 against the Republicans.  

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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