There are a couple of data points worth keeping in mind as we await President Obama’s address to the nation tonight - and as we digest an aide's claim today, as Jake Tapper reports, that his strong approval rating is "earned." One, while his rating is high, it’s also dead average for a new president. The other is the impressive partisanship beneath it.
We have approval ratings for each of the last nine elected presidents after their first month in office, back to Dwight Eisenhower. (We’re leaving Johnson and Ford aside.) There’s been a healthy range, from a low of 55 percent for George W. Bush after the disputed election of 2000 to a high of 76 percent for his father 12 years earlier. (I’m using ABC/Post polls since Reagan, Gallup previously).
But the average? Sixty-seven percent. And Obama’s? Sixty-eight percent, as we reported in our new poll yesterday. His initial rating, then, is strong – but it’s also generally typical for a new guy.
An increasing factor, though, is partisanship. I’ve previously described a steadily rising correlation between political party allegiance and ideology over the past generation. It shows up in presidential approval, too. The gap between a president’s rating in his own party vs. the out party has been markedly wider for the last three officeholders compared with their six elected predecessors.
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were the last two presidents of the less-partisan era. Reagan started with 89 percent approval among Republicans, 71 percent among independents and 56 percent among Democrats. Bush’s first-month approval ratings from these groups were 90, 74 and 64 percent, respectively. Those are 18- and 33-point gaps for Reagan, 16- and 26-point gaps for Bush.
That changed with Bill Clinton: He started with 86 percent approval from Democrats, but just 59 percent from independents and 40 percent from Republicans – gaps of 27 and 46 points, respectively. Then George W. Bush – 86 percent in his party, but dropping to 54 percent among independents (-32 points) and 37 percent among Democrats, 49 points lower than in his political base.
And now there’s Obama, who’s made reaching across party lines a point of principle in his presidency, with little to show for it so far. After a month in the hot seat, 90 percent of Democrats approve of his work, dropping to 67 percent of independents and 37 percent of Republicans. The 53-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in assessing Obama is numerically the biggest in data back to Eisenhower, albeit within sampling tolerances of the gap for George W. Bush.
There are substantive reasons for these differences; Obama’s staked his economic program on a massive infusion of federal dollars, and Republicans are pretty much constitutionally skeptical of the government’s ability to spend money wisely or well, at least on social programs. They’re also especially concerned about the ballooning deficit.
This doesn’t mean there’s no potential upside in Obama’s at least trying to reach across the aisle. Two-thirds of Americans say they’d rather see politicians try to cooperate across party lines, even if that means compromising on important issues. (But likely not if it means compromising on core values, as the message massager John Russonello aptly points out.) And Obama, in our poll, gets credit for seeking compromise in a way the Republicans in Congress don’t. That’s likely helping him among independents, at least as compared with George W. Bush, as the table below shows.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is the same as I suggested shortly after Inauguration Day. Reaching for bipartisanship is all well and good. Actually achieving it, given the sharp and substantive divisions that undergird partisan sentiments, is another issue entirely.Approval in February of 1st term ---In party:--- All Dem Rep Ind vs. out vs. ind. Obama 68% 90% 37% 67% 53 pts. 23 pts. Bush 55 37 86 54 49 32 Clinton 63 86 40 59 46 27 Bush 76 64 90 74 26 16 Reagan 68 56 89 71 33 18 Carter 71 79 58 69 21 10 Nixon 60 52 76 57 24 19 Kennedy 72 86 49 69 37 17 Eisenhower 68 61 84 66 23 18 ABC/Post polls since Reagan, Gallup previously