12/22/2009 12:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: Worst First Year Ratings Ever?

The merits of this weekend's health care reform legislation can be debated elsewhere; our focus here is on its potential political impact. And while the process was more protracted and contentious than many predicted, there is little doubt that this was a tremendous political achievement for President Obama and the Democrats. Our assumption is that the White House's political apparatus hopes that this will stop the President's job approval rating erosion. We aren't sure that it will.

Our sense is that passing the Senate health care reform bill is better for President Obama and the Democrats than not passing anything. Obama's overall job approval (48% approve) and health care approval (51% disapprove) numbers have both fallen in step with declining public support for the health care plan (currently at 36% favor, 49% oppose). The generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party's candidate they plan to vote for in the 2010 House races, has actually favored the Republican candidate in nine of 14 publicly-released polls since the beginning of November (the current average is 44% Republican, 42% Democrat).

The generic ballot and presidential approval rating are the two best general predictors of mid-term shifts in control of Congress, so this should trouble Democratic leaders who touted a permanent, Democratic realignment of the electorate 12 months ago.

Let's tackle one of these and provide some historical context for the President's current approval ratings.

Obama's First Year: The Worst Ever?

Karl Rove's latest WSJ editorial points out that Obama's overall job approval has fallen to "the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year." This is true, but only to a point: Obama's current approval is within a cluster that has Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all within the margin of error at the same point in their first terms. In 1994, President Clinton and the Democrats lost a net of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the "Contract with America" tsunami. In 1982, President Reagan and the GOP lost a net of 27 seats in the House and one in the Senate. Of course, both Clinton and Reagan then went on to win re-election.

The below table shows the approval ratings for Obama and the previous six presidents at the same point in their presidency, approximately 325 days after their inauguration to their first term. (All approval numbers are from the Gallup Poll except for George H.W. Bush's approval among independents, which was taken from a CBS News poll that November.)

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The most striking thing here is Obama's diapproval number. While Ford, Reagan and Clinton had similar approval ratings, only Obama has a nearly one-to-one ratio of approval to disapproval. This might be a testament to the polarization of the contemporary electorate, or it just might be that Obama's policies have engendered greater disapproval at a faster rate than his predecessors'.

For a pretty cool experience (or at least as cool as polling trend data can be), click the graphic below for a link to the interactive USA Today chart that allows you to compare Gallup's historic presidential approval data.

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While Democrats are still quite supportive of Obama, he is really struggling with independent voters. In January, approximately 70% of independents approved of Obama's job performance. It would have been unrealistic for him to keep approval among independents at that level, but a 25-point drop is significant.

Below is a table that compares overall Presidential approval ratings with approval ratings among Independents for the last six Presidents. As you'd expect, the two figures usually move closely together. The spread between Obama's overall and independent approval ratings is currently on the high side of the typical range. Keep a close watch on Obama's job approval number with independents: if it drops into the low 40's that would suggest a catastrophic collapse of support that could be a precursor to a major swing toward the GOP in 2010.

dec 22 chart 2.jpg

Obama's Approval Rating: What Happens Now?

This is the big question. Any assessment of the current situation would suggest that Obama is due for at least a slight ratings bump with the passage of health care reform. It is our belief, however, that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the bill; this is why support for comprehensive health care reform has plummeted in recent months. While many voters oppose the bill because they disike it from a policy perspective, many others oppose it because they simply don't understand it.

Therefore, for Obama to realize some kind of January bump from health care reform's eventual passage, he will need to explain to the American public a) what the bill does and b) why it will be a good thing for them personally. Perhaps then, as is typical after these protracted legislative battles are won by a President and his party, Obama might get a modest (three-to-five point) bounce in his approval rating. But that is far from a certainty. Today, Quinnipiac University released another poll that showed a majority of voters disapprove of the Senate's health care plan. It is going to take some work to convince voters that this bill is a good thing. Not impossible, but increasingly difficult.

After that, to predict the direction of Obama's approval it would be best to watch the topline unemployment number, which has recently been a good leading indicator of Obama's approval rating.

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