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Obama: Successful Yet Unpopular. Why?

David Callahan

President Obama is arguably among the most successful presidents of the past half century. And yet he is also one of the least popular presidents since the dawn of modern polling, with a new poll out this week showing his approval rating near an all-time low. What's going on here? 

First, let's consider Obama's successes. In the past four years, he has pulled the nation back from the brink of economic disaster and presided over a steady, if anemic, growth in jobs and GDP. He passed historic healthcare legislation, a success that eluded any number of other presidents, most notably Bill Clinton. And he also enacted the most comprehensive financial reforms since the New Deal, another heavy lift. 

Meanwhile, Obama has wound down two wars overseas and kept the United States from slipping into any new major wars -- say with Iran or North Korea -- which is more than George W. Bush can claim.

Oh, and another thing: there have been no big scandals in the Obama Administration, regardless of what Darrell Issa may think.

Yes, there are any number of ways that Obama could have done better, and I share the disappointment of many progressives when it comes to a long list of things. Still, Obama has been a very successful president by historical standards. Last fall, voters handed Obama a second term by a resounding margin.

So why does the guy remain so unpopular? According to Gallup, President Obama's cumulative average approval rating between today and when he took office is just 49 percent. Which to say that Obama has never consistently been embraced by even a bare majority of the citizens that he governs. 

In comparison, the average approval for U.S. presidents between 1938 and 2013, according to Gallup, has been 54 percent. 

Obama is well below where Bill Clinton was at this point in his presidency (58 percent) and even further below where Reagan, Johnson, and Eisenwhower were as they began their second terms. Obama is exactly where George W. Bush was in July 2005 -- a time when the utter disaster of Iraq was in maximum bloom. Only Richard Nixon had lower approval ratings than Obama at this point in his presidency (39 percent) and we all know what was going on then. 

So back to the question: Why does Obama well lag behind Clinton, who he has far outstripped in legislative accomplishments, and find himself only eight points higher than Nixon, a president heading fast toward resignation? 

The most obvious answer is the economy. Presidential approval ratings track closely with economic performance and unemployment has been sky high -- the worst jobs crisis since the 1930s -- since the day Obama took office. That said, you'd think that recent improvements in the economy and rising consumer confidence would translate into higher presidential approval ratings. That hasn't happened, at least not yet. 

Which brings me to the second explanation of Obama's low polling numbers: political polarization. In earlier times, a less divided public would give grudging approval to presidents from a different party. Not anymore. Just as nearly half the country stuck with Bush after he orchestrated one of the worst foreign policy fiascos in U.S. history, so too has half the country continued to dislike Obama no matter how well he manages his presidency. 

Finally, Obama's low approval ratings reflect the public's deep distrust of government, politicians, Washington, and -- in fact -- almost all major institutions in U.S. society. Compared to Congress's dismal approval rating of 17 percent, a near-historic low, Obama is riding high. 

Whatever the case, a bigger point to keep in mind about Obama's low approval ratings is this: Unpopular presidents are weak presidents. They have less leverage with Congress and it's harder for them to get stuff done. Obama's critics need to keep that in mind everytime they say that the President should do this or that. We're not talking Reagan here.

This iron law of politics also makes what Obama has managed to achieve all the more impressive.