Just as President Obama's second quarter nears its end, the predictable happened. The gloat over his reported light dip in popularity has begun with a vengeance. The headlines range from the giddy and inflammatory, "The Official Honeymoon Ends," to the more subdued, "Is this really the end?" No other president in living memory has had to face the relentless question "How long will the honeymoon last?" as Obama. The question always sounded more like foreboding, doubt, skepticism, and challenge than the standard wonder over how long a new president can go before he stumbles over himself.
The presidential election night results were barely in before the tongues wagged furiously and bets were made over how soon the Obama thrill would be gone. This bet was ridiculous than and even more ridiculous now. Obama's mid 60s first quarter approval rating is good but not eye popping when compared to other modern day Democratic and Republican presidents. In early, 1961 Democrat John Kennedy scored big at nearly 75 percent in popularity. In early 1953, Republican Dwight Eisenhower got a hefty 70 percent rating. Even Democrat Jimmy Carter came in at 69 percent (and we know what happened to him with the voters). Overall, Obama's 60 plus percent Gallup Poll first quarter rating is no better or worse than the average for the ten presidents in office since 1953.
But it really doesn't matter how high Obama's numbers are they can't stay up there. They didn't for Kennedy, Ike, and the hapless Carter. An act, any act that inflames and polarizes a big segment of the voters will cause a president's popularity numbers to nose dive.
This happened with Gerald Ford. In September, 1974, Ford rode high on the crest of hope that he would wipe the stench of Nixon administration corruption and dirty dealing from the nation's nostrils. An early September poll showed his popularity several points higher than Obama's. Ford's pardon of Nixon swiftly changed that. Ford's numbers went into a headlong freefall. They plummeted below fifty percent and his downward spiral never stopped.
The same happened with Democrat Clinton. His first quarter popularity numbers, 55 percent, were never as high as Obama's. But his squabble with Congress over health care, his sidestep of gays in the military and the Republican drum beat attacks on his character sent his numbers downward. They dropped more than ten percent by the close of his second quarter in office. While Ford's popularity numbers never recovered from the Nixon pardon debacle, Clinton's eventually did and his presidency is generally regarded as one of the more successful.
Obama faces two immediate problems that other presidents didn't have to deal with. He's the first president that Gallup is doing daily tracking on. A point rise or drop in the Gallup numbers will draw instant notice and for Obama's foes, more grist for them to lambaste him and his policies when there's a nudge down in his approval numbers. The other problem is that the three presidents that beat him in early popularity numbers did not have a pack of opponents nitpicking and nagging at him for every real or imagined slight, insult, or misstep. The poll numbers for Obama's critics take on even more significance. They can bash his policies on the economy, the Iraq war, health care, and cite polls that show the public's doubt about them, even while acknowledging that his popularity remains relatively high.
A president's popularity ratings in the early days of his administration are virtually meaningless. The real test for a president and how the public rates him is the quality of his leadership. A foreign crisis, a souring economy, out of control partisan battles with Congress, fights with major labor and industry groups, and prolonged military adventures are the things that can inflict a mortal wound on a new presidential administration. Every president at some point during their first term has faced a crisis and had to make hard decisions that rankle one group or another.
Apart from the big stuff on the economy, health care, and Iraq, Obama has already faced two challenges. They are the Iran meltdown and the rage from gay groups over his backing of Defense of Marriage Act. But even if he had done everything right on these issues, something would crop up to dip his ratings.
Popular ratings then are just at that, over-hyped numbers that measure a president's likeability, not his leadership effectiveness. Obama has a full term ahead of him to fully showcase that quality. Obama' s alleged plunging popularity numbers are a fun and games sideshow except for the gloaters.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard weekly in Los Angeles Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com