07/19/2010 07:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Presidents and Polls: The Only Way Seems Down

As President Obama contemplates his recent poor poll numbers, he may want to recall that Thomas Jefferson once quipped that the presidency was "a splendid misery and a daily loss of friends." Jefferson also remarked that "no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it" -- and he did not need public opinion polls to know this. Nor did his contemporaries. George Washington, pilloried by the opposition, could not wait to leave the presidency, drafting a "valedictory" near the end of his first term and very begrudgingly putting it in the drawer until the end of his second. John Adams, his successor and Jefferson's predecessor, was defeated for reelection when his own party turned against him, leading him to observe that his "party committed suicide and they indicted me for the murder."

Losing the approval of the people seems the norm, not the exception, for presidents. Since Harry Truman, polls help us quantify this. Indeed, he is the most striking example, recording an 87 percent approval rating upon taking office and leaving it with fewer than a third of Americans (32 percent) approving the job he did -- a 55-point fall. Nine of the 12 presidents since 1944 have watched their poll numbers decline from inauguration to departure (admittedly, Obama has not left but has already seen a major drop in his approval rating).

Those who think President Bush left office in 2009 with the worst poll numbers (34 percent approval) need to know not just that Truman left at 32 percent, but that Carter left at 34 percent, and Nixon at 24 percent. Only six of the last eleven presidents had approval ratings above 50 percent when their terms expired. In short, if you become president, expect (if you're lucky) that half of the public will approve of the job you did when you leave office.

This should put into context the near-obsession that pundits -- and many other Americans -- have with a president's poll numbers. Ratings that go up should be the big news story, not those that go down.

Three modern presidents did finish with higher approval ratings than when they took office. Their example is intriguing. Ronald Reagan entered at 51 percent and stepped down at 63 percent. His successor, the first George Bush, entered at 52 and left at 55, and his successor, Bill Clinton, began at 55 and left with a 66 percent approval rating.

How can we explain this? Reagan had Iran-Contra in his second term, a disaster that could well have led to impeachment hearings. Clinton was impeached but the public seemed to slough it off (well, two-thirds of the public anyway). And Bush, though handily winning the first Iraq War, was viewed as clueless when it came to the poison pill that can sink any presidency -- the economy. Yet he still left at 55 percent.

Since Bush left office only slightly above where he entered, the most instructive examples may be Reagan and Clinton, both with double-digit gains. Scandal-plagued as they were, people just liked them. Reagan had an easy affability and disarming sense of humor. Clinton had a charismatic appeal to many and seemed able to channel what it meant to be an average American with both a head and a heart. They shared likeability with the only other two modern presidents who left their presidencies at near 60 percent approval in polls. Eisenhower, with fatherly smile and projected ease, left at 59 percent. Kennedy, with his self-deprecating sense of humor, was at 58 percent when he was assassinated. All four of these presidents also found a winning friend in the TV camera.

No one would ever credit Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, or either Bush with a winning sense of humor or charisma. In our media-saturated, celebrity-driven lives, how you project yourself as a "personality" seems to matter -- a lot.

Admittedly, that's not the whole explanation. Americans do try to assess competence, and part of the poll numbers must reflect their judgment of the job done. Since all presidents have problems, it may be, however, that negative news does more damage when you lack the personal qualities that allow you to offset them on camera. President Obama, a very good orator, is not known for personal warmth or a sense of humor. He may well ponder if there is still time to learn from this.

But on-screen charm, or the lack of it, and even the job done, ignore another intriguing finding in presidential approval polls. The three modern presidents whose ratings went up (Reagan, Bush (I), and Clinton, also started their presidencies with three lowest ratings of the 12 most recent presidents (51, 52, and 55 percent, respectively). Maybe their "success" in the polls is just a reflection of beating low expectations.

Indeed, only three of seven presidents since Watergate have started their presidencies with high expectations -- Ford (71 percent), Carter (67) and Obama (69). In contrast, all five of those before Watergate started with approval ratings at or above 60 percent -- and three of those started above 70 percent (Truman at 87, Kennedy at 72, and Johnson at 77).

Nevertheless, presidencies that begin with low expectations cannot be good for us. Failure can too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we expect little, and then 24/7 media and nonstop political attacks push the numbers lower.

Our fascination with poll numbers may also lead us to reject leaders and messages that we need to hear. In scanning the polls, there may be less than meets the eye. Quick judgments are often inaccurate. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson are now viewed as far more effective than the prevailing view when they left office. Truman is usually listed among the top ten presidents. While serving in office may be a "splendid misery," it can sometimes lead to splendid things.