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Brendan Nyhan Headshot

False hopes on Obama approval

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A New York Times story on President Obama's approval rating yesterday included this unpersuasive claim:

If Congress passes Mr. Obama's health care bill, the White House -- and many independent analysts -- believe that the accomplishment of a signature campaign promise is likely to push the president's approval ratings back up.

I can see why the White House might make this argument to wavering Senate moderates, but who are these unnamed "independent analysts" and what are they talking about? I don't know any reason to expect that Obama will receive a significant approval boost from passage of health care.

Let's consider the last three presidents who passed a "signature campaign promise" during their first year in office -- Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. (I'm omitting George H.W. Bush, who didn't have much of a domestic agenda.)

-Congress passed Reagan's budget on June 25, 1981 and passed his tax bill on July 29, 1981. Here are his approval ratings from Gallup from that period:

6/5-8/8159%
6/19-22/8159%
[Budget passes June 25]
6/26-29/8158%
7/17-20/8160%
7/24-27/8156%
[Tax bill passes July 29]
7/31-8/3/8160%
8/14-17/8160%

Do you see an approval boost? I don't.

-Bill Clinton signed his deficit reduction bill on August 10, 1993 (the major votes were on August 5 and 6). You can argue about whether this was a "signature campaign promise" (Clinton increased his focus on the deficit after taking office), but it was the major legislative accomplishment of his first year in office and there's no evidence he received a boost from it:

6/29-30/9346%
7/9-11/9345%
7/19-21/9342%
[Bill passes August 5-6]
8/8-10/9344 %
[Bill signed August 10]
9/10-12/9347

-Finally, there's George W. Bush, who passed his tax cut bill on May 26, 2001 and signed it into law on June 7, 2001 -- as with the previous two examples, there was no discernable bump in approval (I'm omitting the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill, but the story is the same there):

4/20-22/0162%
5/7-9/01 53%
[Bill passes May 26, signed June 7]
6/8-10/01 55%
6/11-17/01 55%
6/28-7/1/01 52%
7/10-11/01 50%

The larger story here is that many journalists and political operatives have a wildly exaggerated view of the president's ability to change public opinion outside of a foreign policy context (as with the Obama's health care speech). The reality is that Obama, like his predecessors, is largely at the mercy of the economy and external events unless a new war or foreign policy crisis emerges.

Update 11/25 8:50 PM: Via a reader comment below, here's another useful comparison -- LBJ's approval numbers when Medicare was enacted (it passed Congress July 27-28, 1965, and was signed into law on July 30):

5/13-18/65 70%
6/4-9/65 69%
6/24-29/65 66%
7/16-21/65 66%
[Bill passes July 27-28, signed July 30]
8/5-10/65 65%
8/27-9/1/65 64%

The same conclusion applies.

(Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com)