07/22/2009 02:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nyhan: 'Of Course' Obama's Approval is Dropping

Political scientist Brenden Nyhan blogs one of those helpful reality checks for those of us a bit too obsessed with the daily twitches in President Obama's approval ratings:

That's why it's amusing to see so many people acting like it's news that approval of President Obama's handling of health care and overall job performance numbers are trending downward (particularly among independents and Republicans). Of course his numbers are going down! It's been a virtual certainty that this transition would take place since the day Obama took office. The only question was when it would happen and how far down they would go.

The reason is simple. Presidential approval tends to decline after the honeymoon period as the opposition party begins to be more critical of the president. These messages remind opposition party members and sympathetic independents why they dislike the president. As a result, his approval numbers go down. This decline was likely to be especially significant in Obama's case because his initial Gallup approval levels were the highest for any president since JFK.

He goes on to argue that the "same reasoning applies" to the much discussed declines in Obama's health approval ratings. Read his full post for the details.

It's also helpful to examine the historical data Nyhan has in mind, via the graphic below that was originally created by our colleague Charles Franklin. Presidential approval does tend to decline in the first 20 months (the first blue grid line), but not always.  Of course, the relatively small "sample size" and the inconsistency in the approval trends underscores Nyhan's equally important caveat about the uncertainty over "when" Obama's numbers would decline and "how far down" they will go.


I have no quarrel with his nitpick of my July 13 column, particularly the point that it's hard to identify "one factor as the cause of Obama's decline." Still, I think the case is strong that bad economic news is the biggest factor in the timing of the recent declines. As such, the historical comparison that has most intrigued me is with the approval ratings of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and 1982. Reagan's approval numbers did jump upward very early in his term following the Hinckley assassination attempt in late March 1981, but his approval numbers proceeded to slide during his first two years of office along with worsening economic news. Reagan's numbers started their rebound as the economic news improved during 1983 and 1984.


I created the chart above. which superimposes Obama's early job approval trend with Reagan's, using the USA Today presidential approval tracker. Keep in mind that it plots only historical polls from Gallup and only the USA Today/Gallup poll approval numbers for Obama (not the Gallup Daily tracking).

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