How Will Unemployment Figures Affect Obama's Approval Rating?

by: Chris Bowers

Fri Jun 05, 2009 at 14:24

Even as unemployment continues to rise, President Obama's approval rating remains high. This is largely due to the Bush administration and Republicans still receiving most of the blame for current economic conditions, rather than Democrats and the Obama administration. However, if history is any indication, and if current forecasts of continued job loss throughout 2009 followed by a recovery in the second half of 2010 are accurate, we can expect  President Obama's approval rating to drop substantially between now and mid-2010, followed by a long, slow recovery afterward.

The best historical analogy for the current political and economic situation is the first three years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. In the early 1980's, a new President, who had won by a wide margin and brought a new party into the White House, also experienced an extreme economic downturn. In fact, the economic downturn of the early 1980's is the only one statistically comparable to our current situation. Since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting keeping records, the only previous months when unemployment was either equal to, or greater than, current levels was a 15 month stretch from May 1982 to July 1983. At the time, the U3 unemployment rate peaked at 10.8% in November and December of 1982, a number that is likely to be equaled by the end of 2009. So, what happened to Reagan is a good point of comparison on what to expect with Obama's approval.

In early June of 1981, Ronald Reagan had an approval rating similar to Barack Obama's current approval. For the first four and a half months of his Presidency, Reagan's average net job approval was +40.86%, very close to Obama's current average of +37.44% (all numbers from Gallup). When job losses began a steady, upward rise in September of 1981, Regan's disapproval also began to rise:

Reagan Disapproval, August 1981-February 1984

National U3 Unemployment Rate, 1981-1984

There was a strong connection between Reagan's rising dispproval rate, and between the rising unemployment rate. Reagan's peak disapproval rate of 56% occurred in January of 1983, just after the November and December peak in unemployment at 10.8%. From that point on, Reagan's disapproval began to drop at roughly the same, slow rate as unemployment dropped. By early 1984, his disapproval had returned to its September 1981 levels, and pretty much stayed there for a long time.

The lesson in these numbers is that Obama's disapproval rating will probably continue to rise during 2009, as unemployment continues to rise and as more time passes from the Bush administration. However, it will not be necessary for unemployment to return to pre-recession levels in order for Obama's disapproval rating to start dropping. Rather, it appears that all Obama will need to affect a positive change in his approval rating will be a drop in unemployment from its peak levels. And, as long as the drop continues, Obama's disapproval rating should continue to drop as well.

As such, if job creation really does start in the second half of 2010, say in July of 2010, it should be a boon to Democratic fortunes in the midterm elections. While Republicans lost 27 House seats in the 1982 mid-term elections, which took place just before peak unemployment, the 2010 midterm election should take place just as the economy is starting to experience job growth. Ideally for Democrats, unemployment would start to decline by February of 2010, which would provide enough time before the elections to recoup whatever losses they would suffer between now and peak unemployment. However, few economists seem to be predicting such an early unemployment peak, so that is a longshot.

After 2010, as long as job growth continues, it is likely that President Obama will have a consistently high approval rating through most of 2011. However, when the stimulus spending runs out near the end of 2011, the loss of that spending in the economy might cause a renewed drop in employment, and thus re-election trouble for Obama in 2012. As such, after a successful 2010 midterm, Democrats should strongly consider either a smaller, second stimulus package, or a modest long-term increase in government spending. Politically speaking, the last thing they need is for employment to peak in late 2011 when no elections are being held...

...and yes, I can see how this analysis appears more concerned with the politics of the economy than with the actual economy. I don't mean to imply that the politics are all we should be concerned wiith. I am just trying to stick to my strengths as a writer, and I am more of a political analyst than an economic one.

Chris Bowers :: How Will Unemployment Figures Affect Obama's Approval Rating?

Tags: , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

I wouldn't be surprised if (0.00 / 0)
the Misery Index tracked very well with Presidential approval.  It would probably track even better if you weighted unemployment more than inflation.

Hmm (0.00 / 0)
On the one hand, wonderful analysis as usual Chris. I'm a big fan. I donated and everything.

On the other, isn't this toeing the line of manipulating policy for primarily political gain? The mood of the post didn't seem to be concerned as much with people having jobs (for which I do agree that additional stimulus may be necessary) as with the Democrats being popular!

Now, the reasonable answer is that Republicans created this mess, it would be painfully ironic (and bad for the progressive movement) for Democrats to bear  political costs for it, so let's make sure that doesn't happen, right? That's probably true.

I guess I have a question: would we want another stimulus package primarily or entirely because we believe we need to increase demand in the economy (as Krugman and plenty of other great progressive economists would have us believe), which can be grouped with the desire to help people get jobs-- or, alternatively, specifically to ensure Obama gets reelected? Is it just both? How do we keep political imperatives separate from moral ones, or ought they not be so?

I'm a political analyst (0.00 / 0)
I hear what you are saying. I didn't mean that we should be more concerned with the politics than with people getting jobs. I just posted this becuase it is the sort of queestion I try to answer. I'll leave the general economics to others, but try to discern the political implications myself.

Hope that makes sesne.

[ Parent ]
In an ideal world, they ought to be separate (0.00 / 0)
But we don't live in an ideal world, just like we don't live in a world with frictionless surfaces and point masses.

There's a bigger question here.  Should politicians act with ideological coherence and should voters be forced to choice among competing ideologies, or should politicians attempt to represent the views of their constituents (who often lack coherent and self-consistent ideologies), regardless of the politician's own views?  Should politicians do things which are popular and avoid doing things which are unpopular?  To use your example, if the American public wanted another stimulus package and for some reason we thought it wouldn't be a good idea (and Krugman et. al. back us up on that), should we do it anyways or should we oppose it?  

Theoretically, being popular in a democracy is positive reinforcement that you are doing a good job.  Yet at the same time, if you believe in a progressive ideology, it is clear that there are things that are wrong that are also popular.  That is the difficulty of democracy.  What do you do when the majority is wrong (in your opinion)?

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
From a raw political perspective (0.00 / 0)
Obama's re-election depends less on whether there is a V versus U shaped recovery and more on whether there is a w shaped recover.

That is my nightmare: that the economy recovers in 2010 and slips back into recession in late 2011.  

. (0.00 / 0)
That's my fear too. Double dip recession a la FDR in 37.

[ Parent ]
except... (0.00 / 0)
Except that rising oil prices, exacerbated by a fall in investment in exploration and infrastructure during the recession, will probably cause another downturn in the economy sometime around 2010-2012, or a very uneven recovery at best.

In 1981 the economy was different (0.00 / 0)
As I recall real estate prices spiked and so made construction a very profitable business. Construction jobs accounted for a great many of the jobs being created. Which in turn sparked the great credit card economy of the last 25 years. With Americans being totally tapped out and the real estate boom days long past just where is this new job creation boom going to come from?

I think the Democrats and Republicans are both in trouble if Americans don't start seeing a plus in job creation soon.


Open Left Campaigns



Advanced Search

Powered by: SoapBlox