03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dec. '09 Obama Poll Watch -- Below Fifty, But Stabilizing

December was a busy month for Barack Obama, with many conflicting events pulling his poll numbers in different directions for differing reasons. And although December marked the first time Obama's monthly average sank below the fifty-percent threshold, this dip mostly happened before the month actually began, and Obama stayed remarkably stable after the dip was absorbed.

Now, I do realize that we're all getting sick of looking back at 2009, and although I really would much prefer to be writing about looking forward to 2010, we simply must provide a final glance rearwards before moving on to prognosticating the future. Because it is time once again for Obama Poll Watch -- our monthly look back at Obama's approval ratings for the previous month!

So we'll briefly take a look at what the numbers meant for Obama in December take a guess at what the trends likely mean, and then even-more-briefly attempt to make a comparison with the latest in our "Obama versus past presidents" series -- Gerald Ford.

Next month will be more fun, I promise, since it'll be Nixon's turn. And, as always, at the website, there are charts with up-to-date comparisons with G.W. Bush, Clinton, G.H.W. Bush, Reagan, and Carter (along with Ford's new chart).

But, having successfully plugged the website, let's move right along to Obama's chart for December, 2009.

Obama Approval -- December 2009

[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]


December 2009

Obama started December by explaining his Afghanistan strategy to the country. This infuriated the anti-war folks, but was received well among others. This may have softened Obama's base support slightly, but propped him up against those who would normally not approve of Obama. This was reinforced by the speech Obama gave while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, in which he laid out the rationale for "just war" -- a very interesting venue to give such a speech.

December also opened with some unexpected good economic news, as the unemployment rate actually fell, back down to the still-historically-high 10.0 percent. One blip in a chart may not mean anything, but then again, if we get two or three months of such numbers, it could certainly help Obama politically. The "jobs forum" he held at the White House early in December certainly didn't do much (either in general, or for Obama politically).

Later in the month, Obama travelled back to Europe to achieve not very much in Copenhagen, where the environmental world congress decided basically to punt until next year any solid agreement or treaty attempts. Obama returned to see the Senate finally pass healthcare reform, although only after Harry Reid enraged a good part of the Left by acceding to every demand Joe Lieberman could think up on short notice. But, crippled by this compromise as it was, the Senate did actually pass something just before Obama flew off to Hawai'i to spend Christmas with his family and the entire White House Press Corps -- none of whom managed to give any kind of televised report from the sunny islands during the whole trip, without sporting a huge smug "I'm in Hawai'i, and not in Washington D.C. with its piles and piles of snow -- woo hoo!" look on their face while doing so.

At month's end, terrorism raised its ugly head once again, as America luckily avoided an airplane catastrophe over the skies of Michigan. All in all, a mixed month for the president.

December's numbers for Obama looked worse than they actually were. Because we average these numbers for each calendar month, microtrends sometimes don't show up as clearly. But most of the drop shown in Obama's numbers for the past month actually happened in late November and the very early part of December. The rest of the month, the numbers quivered and held approximately the same all month long. Overall, Obama's monthly approval rate dropped 1.7 percentage points -- the biggest such drop since August -- to yet another all-time low of 49.4 percent. His disapproval number went up 1.4 percent, to end up at another all-time high, 44.9 percent.


Overall Trends

As I said, much of what is registered as a big drop in approval for Obama this month actually happened in November. Obama's best daily number in November was 52.6 percent, in mid-month, which fell to 50.3 percent by the end of the month. December started with the same 50.3 percent, which was the highest number Obama hit all month. But, while this fell to an all-time low of 48.4 percent in mid-month, by the end of the month it was back up to 50.1 percent again. The actual movement within the month for Obama's approval rating was only in a range of 1.9 percent, the smallest such number since last January (which doesn't even really count, as it only has like a week's worth of polling). In other words, once he hit his new bottom, he had the most stable month of his entire presidency.

Disapproval numbers were a bit more active. They started the month at 43.7, rose to a new all-time high of 46.4 early on, and then settled back down a bit. This is where I am making the assumption that Obama's Afghanistan policy announcement did him some good (with no data to back me up, I should add, just a gut feeling). By the end of the month, Obama's disapproval was down to 44.6 percent again. Still high, but trending a bit downward since the early part of the month.

This is all visible in graphic form over at RealClearPolitics, I should add, who track these numbers daily rather than monthly.

What any of this means for the coming month is an open question. Obama's numbers could: dip sharply downward, continue their months-long slow slide downward, flatten out, or turn the corner and go back up. But January seems to be looking good for the president, so my money at this point is on either a flattening, or (more optimistically) starting to slowly move upwards.

I say this mostly because of the one big annual event dedicated to the president: Obama's first official State Of The Union speech to a joint session of Congress. The SOTU (as wonks like to call it) will happen in late January, and Obama will either have healthcare reform legislation signed, or will be very, very close to getting a bill on his desk. Either way, he'll have a major political accomplishment to talk about during the speech.

But what really makes me tilt towards optimistic this month is my bet that Obama will get a second month of good news on the unemployment front. I could be totally wrong about that, I fully admit, since I have no inside information either way. But the best thing politically for Obama right now would be a report that says we actually gained a few jobs last month, instead of "reducing the number of jobs lost." Plus, it would likely get the official unemployment rate under double-digits again.

This isn't to say a lot of folks won't still be out of work, but in politics perception is key. And if the perception starts slowly turning to: "things are getting better," rather than "things are getting worse," it usually helps the party in power in Washington. All the way up to the top.

So, while Obama may get a bump from his SOTU speech, if he got an increase in his approval earlier in the month from good economic news, then it would tend to be more long-lasting, and indicate a true upward turn in Obama's poll numbers.

To be fair, though, the smart money would be on: "Obama's poll numbers continue to flatten out, or possibly sink another half-point or two." Just in case you're off to Vegas to lay a bet, or something.


Obama v. Gerald Ford

This is going to be a short analysis, because there really aren't many (if any) valid parallels between Barack Obama and Gerald Ford, because Ford was such a unique president. Ford was, of course, the only president in American history to come from Michigan.

No, I speak, of course, of the fact that Ford was the only President in American history not to be elected to any national office. Plucked from Congress to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew (who resigned in disgrace), Ford then automatically became president when Richard Nixon subsequently resigned in disgrace himself. He started mid-term, was not elected, and then got beaten by Jimmy Carter and so went back to Michigan to play golf. And then, later, decided to move to a more golf-friendly location.

Meaning there just aren't many points in his term that can be validly matched up against Obama's first term. But, for the sake of completeness, we include him in our march back through time. All of these charts (from Ford, now, up through George W. Bush) are available (updated for this month's numbers) at Of particular interest this month, check out how close Obama and Reagan match up for approval, at this point in their respective presidencies.

Gerald Ford

[Click on graphs to see larger-scale versions.]

Exacerbating the problems with trying to match Ford's numbers with Obama's is the fact that the site I use to get older polling data over at the University of Connecticut seems to have a huge gap in Ford's numbers (from Gallup) for most of the 1976 election season. This was an interesting time, because Ford had to beat back a challenge from none other than Ronald Reagan all the way to the convention, and then the whole general election campaign as well -- for which there is no data (which is why there's a big gap at the right end of those lines on the graph).

But, pointless as this exercise is, let's match it up against Obama's chart.

Obama v. Ford -- December 2009

The only comparison you could possibly make between Ford and Obama is that Ford, almost immediately after taking office, gave a blanket pardon to Richard Nixon, for any actual crimes anyone might uncover about Watergate. This was not popular, to put it mildly. Barack Obama came into office and pretty much signaled that vengefully going after Bush or Cheney wasn't going to be a big priority with him. Which, again, was not very popular.

But that's a pretty big stretch, to say the least. Which is why we present this comparison chart to complete our set of past presidents, but really don't think you can draw any sort of parallels between them.

Next month, however, will be a lot more fun because we'll be taking a look at Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon. Until then, fellow pollwatchers....


[Obama Poll Watch Data:]

Column Archives


Obama's All-Time Statistics


Highest Monthly Approval -- 2/09 -- 63.4%

Lowest Monthly Approval -- 12/09 -- 49.4%

Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 12/09 -- 44.9%

Lowest Monthly Disapproval -- 1/09 -- 19.6%


Highest Daily Approval -- 2/15/09 -- 65.5%

Lowest Daily Approval -- 12/14/09 -- 48.4%

Highest Daily Disapproval -- 12/8/09 -- 46.4%

Lowest Daily Disapproval -- 1/29/09 -- 19.3%


Obama's Raw Monthly Data

[All-time high in bold, all-time low underlined.]

Month -- (Approval / Disapproval / Undecided)

12/09 -- 49.4 / 44.9 / 5.7

11/09 -- 51.1 / 43.5 / 5.4

10/09 -- 52.2 / 41.9 / 5.9

09/09 -- 52.7 / 42.0 / 5.3

08/09 -- 52.8 / 40.8 / 6.4

07/09 -- 56.4 / 38.1 / 5.5

06/09 -- 59.8 / 33.6 / 6.6

05/09 -- 61.4 / 31.6 / 7.0

04/09 -- 61.0 / 30.8 / 8.2

03/09 -- 60.9 / 29.9 / 9.2

02/09 -- 63.4 / 24.4 / 12.2

01/09 -- 63.1 / 19.6 / 17.3


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