09/02/2009 03:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Fast Does Approval Fall?


David Brooks commented in his column yesterday "All presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast." Mostly right, sort of. But some context would help.

First, Obama's approval has fallen 16 points from his first Gallup poll reading to his most recent, finished 8/31, from 68% to 52% approval.  That's a smidgen more than Bill Clinton, who fell 14 points from his first poll to his last prior to September 1, 58% to 44%. One might pick a nit with Brooks that while Obama has fallen two more points he started substantially higher and that 52% now is quite a bit better than the 44% Clinton had at this point in his term.

(All the polls used here are by Gallup which is the only organization with polling reaching back to FDR. I'm looking only at first term elected presidents here, so no Truman, Johnson or Ford. FDR's first term predates polling, of course. I include all polls taken prior to September 1 of the first year in office.)

A look at the chart above also shows that NOT every president "falls from their honeymoon highs", at least not by September 1. Of the 9 presidents in the chart, five actually gained in approval from late January to the end of August, and one more finished where he began. Usually the gains are modest, but the first President Bush gained 13 points over this time, and President Reagan picked up 9.  More modest gains of 6, 4 and 3 points came to Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon respectively. Carter held even at 0 change. So of the nine, only the second Bush (-2) and Clinton and Obama have dropped between first poll and the end of August. That, of course, aids Brook's main point which is that Obama has suffered significant loss of support compared to other presidents-- it is just not the case that everyone falls off over the first 8 months.

A more important nit is that simply comparing the first and last polls ignores all the ones in between. Polls, as we know, jump around quite a bit, so a little bump up early or late can distort the rate of approval change. It is better to use all the polls to get the best estimate we can of the rate of change.

The chart below shows the estimated monthly rate of change in approval, using all the polls from January through the end of August. I fit a simple linear trend to each president. Not all change linearly, for example Obama fell, rose and then fell more steeply. A linear fit misses the nuance, but it gets the basic story right-- how fast have approval ratings been changing when we take all the data into account. The chart below ranks the presidents according to their estimated monthly change in approval.


Based on this estimate, Obama has the second greatest rate of decline, losing 1.6 percentage points of approval each month. Clinton did worse, falling at a monthly rate of 2.3 points.  If you look back to the first figure, you see that Clinton fell faster and further, but then rebounded a bit at the end of the summer, making his net change a little smaller (-14) but his overall rate of decline a bit steeper. Obama's chart shows two phases, an initial shallow decline with a bit of a rebound and a more recent decline at a higher rate. Linear fits don't distinguish between these details. But it is pretty clear that based on the linear trend, Clinton fell faster than Obama, contra-Brooks.

What is more interesting is how many presidents managed only slight declines or even gains in the first 8 months. Carter and the second Bush both lost just over a half point per month. Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan all gained, from 0.1 to 0.2 points per month. Eisenhower gained an impressive 0.65 points per month, and the first Bush gained an astonishing 1.9 points per month. So no, not everyone falls off. But yes, Obama has fallen, and quite badly in comparison. Just not quite the absolute worst.

We might put Obama's trend in perspective of his predecessors as well. The next chart shows the trends for all these presidents, highlighting Obama.


This chart offers one important corrective to a widely repeated myth: Obama was not "wildly popular" at the start of his term. This exaggeration is repeated so often that it is becoming a universal "truth". But the fact is Obama entered office with strong support, but not so strong as that of Eisenhower or Kennedy, and after a couple of weeks his approval was above average but only by a bit. It is this myth that adds to the drama of his current fall, but the myth exaggerates how high in the pantheon Obama first stood.

The second useful perspective of this chart is that much of the decline has come after 3.5 months, or starting in May. The decline since then has been quite steady, dropping Obama from a shade above average at 3.5 months, to a next-to-last place now. This second slide should be far more worrisome to the White House than the initial polls or the net change from first to last poll.

Finally, we should remember that the first 8 months do not tell the future. Clinton ranks dead last as of September 1, yet finishes with one of the highest approval ratings, and maintained high approval for longer than anyone since Eisenhower. Nor could GW Bush's approval on 9/1 say anything about his approval following 9/11.

The best perspective is the full term, and with time marked by elections rather than months. The chart below provides this for all presidents since FDR's 3rd term. The scales are exactly comparable across presidents so your eye can show you differences in trends. And the vertical blue lines mark off mid-term and presidential election dates. Those are the moments that matter. A low approval on November 2, 2010 will push Democratic losses in the House well above 20 seats. But a rebounding approval (driven by a better economy) can hold those losses below the historic average. That is the future still in Obama's hands to write. And that is basically what David Brooks was saying to the White House.