The Honeymoon Isn't Over Until the Public Sings

05/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While noting that President Barack Obama has higher job approval scores than any president in the past three decades, some in Washington also wonder how long this honeymoon can last and how much Obama can get done before it ends. The answer to those two questions lays in placing both Obama's performance and the questions themselves in historical context.

As the late V.O. Key, the founder of modern political science research, pointed out in his masterful 1960 book, The Responsible Electorate, voters make their decisions in retrospect. Specifically, the public's judgment about how well a president is doing is based in part on how it evaluates his predecessors, especially the president who immediately preceded the current president. There is no doubt that at least a part of Obama's appeal is simply that he is NOT George W. Bush, the most poorly evaluated president in polling history. Similarly, President Jimmy Carter had slightly higher numbers than Obama at this point in his presidency, presumably because his style was so different than that of Richard Nixon, the only president forced to resign because of his malfeasance in office.

But positive attitudes toward Barack Obama are based on far more than negative attitudes toward his Republican predecessor. Outside of Carter, President Obama's approval score is higher than for any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, two Presidents who served toward the end of the last civic era in American history, a period that ended with the election of Nixon in 1968. In civic eras, Americans have much more positive attitudes toward political institutions than in politically divided and gridlocked idealist eras such as the Baby Boomer-dominated one we just left. In civic eras, the public wants and expects governmental action. By contrast, in idealist eras, presidential approval ratings tend to fall fairly quickly in a President's term, signaling the end of the honeymoon. This happens as soon as the President begins to take action that is bound to offend at least one half of the divided electorate.

Civic eras begin when a generation, such as today's young Millennials, enters the electorate with an overwhelming preference for one party's presidential candidate and his policy agenda. This causes the President's popularity to go up or remain stable at a high level, not down, as the newly elected candidate takes steps to implement his campaign pledges. For example, Franklin Roosevelt, who kicked off America's last previous civic era in 1932, never really did see an end to his honeymoon in terms of decreasing popularity, at least not until well into his second term. FDR's Democrats even gained seats in both the House and Senate in 1934, the only time in U.S. history that the party of a newly elected president has ever gained seats in the mid-term elections that followed his winning the presidency. And, of course FDR won reelection to a second term in 1936 by an even larger margin than he did in 1932.

As long as Democrats in Congress support Obama's blueprint for change, he should continue to accomplish big things, which will have the effect of reinforcing, not decreasing, his popularity. While many inside the beltway may not recognize that we have entered a new era in American politics, both the President and the public do. Barack Obama should have the popularity to prove it for some time to come.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.