GovWatch: Setting the First Mark at 100 Days

Darrell M. West
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

April 29, 2009

When major financial institutions melted down last fall, gross domestic product dropped precipitously and unemployment rose alarmingly. All of us feared the worst. At the low point last October, only 7 percent of Americans believed the United States was headed in the right direction, while 89 percent thought the country was seriously on the wrong track.

One hundred days into a new administration, though, you have to wonder whether political pundits, financial analysts, and many Americans were guilty of severe over-reaction. They described the sharp downturn as the mother of all fiscal collapses, the worst crisis in a century, another Great Depression. Might they have needlessly riled the American public?

Crises call for a cool-headed narrative, since the haze of heated commentary, polarized debates, and contradictory claims can trigger misjudgment of important trends. The Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution has initiated a “GovWatch” monitor of presidential and congressional job approval, trust in government, public satisfaction, right track numbers, views of the major parties, political polarization, congressional performance, presidential press conferences, and attitudes toward the news media. We have compiled data going back several decades from a number of different sources to help people understand what is happening today.

Looking historically helps to place the current period in a broader framework. Comparing people’s views of President Barack Obama to those of other recent chief executives reveals where he is over- or under-performing. We will also be looking forward, updating these indicators on a regular basis.

Early Positives

Preliminary analysis suggests that as he nears the 100-day mark, President Obama is viewed very positively. His 62 percent job approval rating in the April Gallup survey demonstrates high popularity. People like Obama and feel that he is trying hard under difficult economic and political circumstances.

However, comparing him to recent presidents reveals that high popularity is not unusual. For all the chief executives from Eisenhower to Obama, the average job approval is 64 percent. At the 100-day point, George W. Bush had a 62 percent approval rating, Bill Clinton was at 55 percent, George Herbert Walker Bush was rated positively by 58 percent, Ronald Reagan was at 67 percent, Jimmy Carter was at 63 percent, Gerald Ford was viewed positively by 48 percent, Richard Nixon was rated favorably by 61 percent, Lyndon Johnson was at 75 percent, John Kennedy was at 83 percent, and Dwight Eisenhower was viewed positively by 73 percent. Judged in this light, Obama lies at the mid-point of post-World War II presidents.

Job Approval Near 100-Day Mark
Kennedy 83%
Johnson 75
Eisenhower 73
Reagan 67
Carter 63
W. Bush 62
Obama 62
Nixon 61
Clinton 55
Ford 48
Average 64

Obama Ranks Higher than Congress

Obama’s approval ratings are much higher than those of Congress. When asked in a CBS News/New York Times survey to evaluate legislative performance, only 26 percent of Americans this spring gave Congress positive marks. This is the lowest of congressional ratings during the last six presidencies. The average rating across this time period is 36 percent.

Presidential Administration Job Performance Near 100-Day Mark
2001 (W. Bush) 50%
1989 (H.W. Bush) 42
1993 (Clinton) 35
1981 (Reagan) 33
1977 (Carter) 31
2009 (Obama) 26
Average 36

Governing Satisfaction is Not High

Satisfaction with the way the nation is being governed represents another way to judge political leadership. There are two ways to gauge satisfaction. One is the level of satisfaction near the end of the 100-day mark. On this dimension, Obama is in the middle of the pack. Twenty-nine percent of Americans in April 2009 indicated they were satisfied with how the United States was being governed. This is lower than the high performance of George W. Bush (46 percent) and George Herbert Walker Bush (44 percent) and below the five-president average of 35 percent. Of course, Obama inherited a dismal economic situation; so it is no big surprise that this governing satisfaction number is not high.

President General Satisfaction Level Near 100-Day Mark Improvement Over 100 Days
Reagan 33% +16%
Obama 29 +12
H.W.Bush 44 -1
Clinton 24 -5
W.Bush 46 -10
Average 35 +2

A more revealing approach is to look at improvement in satisfaction levels from the beginning to the end of the 100-day period. Here, President Obama ranks second with a 12 percentage point improvement behind President Reagan’s 16 percent figure. Both are well above the average of +2 percent for the last five presidents, and much higher than the -10 percentage point drop for George W. Bush or the -5 drop for Bill Clinton.

An analysis of right track numbers for the last four presidents compiled by POLITICO shows Obama with the largest improvement over his first 100 days. The percentage of Americans saying the country is headed in the right direction has risen 23 percentage points for Obama, compared to 2 percent for George W. Bush, -4 points for Bill Clinton, and -9 points for George Herbert Walker Bush.

On these dimensions, President Obama’s first 100 days have gone very well. He is popular and the country is showing improvement in satisfaction and the view the country is headed in the right direction. Obama has laid out a broad and ambitious agenda to deal with our economic crisis. He has opened dialogue with friends and adversaries around the world. He has pushed for reforms in education, health care, broadband technology, and climate change. Congress approved his landmark $787 billion economic recovery and reinvestment package.

Partisan Polarization is Up

As GovWatch illustrates, with the success of Obama’s early legislative agenda, Democrats clearly have won the party favorability battle. An April 2009 CBS News/New York Times survey found that 58 percent of voters have an UNFAVORABLE view of the Republican party, compared to 56 percent who hold a FAVORABLE view of the Democratic party. Democrats also hold a 57 to 22 percent lead over Republicans in numbers feeling the party is “more concerned with the needs and problems of people like yourself.”

Equally important, public sentiments regarding the economy are starting to become less pessimistic. According to CBS News/New York Times surveys, the percentage of Americans feeling the national economy is very bad has dropped from 62 to 51 percent over the past three months. And the number thinking the economy is getting better has risen from 7 to 20 percent since January.

Views regarding the economy are important because two-thirds of GDP is based on consumer spending. If consumers feel pessimistic, they won’t spend and the recession won’t abate. Indeed, in the rush to analyze the economic recovery, there has been insufficient attention to the psychological aspects of the American public.

The most worrisome sign for President Obama is political polarization of the national electorate. The partisan gap in judgments of Democrats and Republicans regarding President Obama’s job performance shows polarization at an all-time high. According to Gallup survey data, the approval gap between Republicans and Democrats on Obama is at 63 percentage points, nearly double the average of 35 percentage points for post-war presidents. Ninety-one percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s performance, compared to 28 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Independents.

After Obama, the most polarizing president was George W. Bush with a spread of 62 points at the 100-day mark between Republicans and Democrats. This was followed by Bill Clinton (57 points), Reagan (45 points), George Herbert Walker Bush (39 points), and Nixon (34 points). The least polarizing president at the 100-day mark was Lyndon Johnson, with a 15 percentage point spread between his Republican and Democratic approval ratings.

Since polarization often gets worse during the course of any administration, the extreme party divisions that exist at the 100-day point are worrisome for the long-term future of the Obama administration as well as the civility of public discussions. The wide gulf in assessments of Republicans versus Democrats may complicate the president’s ability to address health care, climate change and immigration over the next few years.

President Republican Approval Democrat Approval Partisan Gap
Obama 28% 91% 63%
W. Bush 93 31 62
Clinton 25 82 57
Reagan 91 46 45
H.W. Bush 81 42 39
Nixon 83 49 34
Kennedy 60 89 29
Ford 67 41 26
Carter 48 73 25
Eisenhower 87 64 23
Johnson 67 82 15

In the future, we will update this analysis and track the course of economic recovery dollars. The biggest uncertainty is whether President Obama’s $787 billion recovery and reinvestment program will achieve its ambitious goals in the areas of economic growth, education, health information technology, broadband access, and energy efficiency. We will track these areas and benchmark future governmental performance.