The Obama presidency by the numbers

Article Highlights

  • The December tidings for the President were uniformly chilly.

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  • To take just one poll, 68 percent in the ABC News poll approved of the president in February 2009.

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  • President Obama’s five-year average (51 percent) in the ABC News poll is “the lowest on record” from any President dating back to Harry Truman.

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As anticipation builds for President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 28, how does the public view the Obama presidency?  The December tidings for the President were uniformly chilly. “Obama ends year on a low-note,” proclaimed the NBC News/Wall Journal pollsters in mid-December. “Obama approval plunge pulls down Democrats,” said Quinnipiac University.   “Evaluations of President Obama Drop Amid Skepticism about ACA,” echoed CBS news surveyors. And in what may have been the cruelest cut, this headline from Fox: “More voters like Bush than Obama.” Can he recover?

Monthly polls that track ups and downs are useful, but they are ephemeral and provide little sense of how the President has fared over the past five years and few clues about the future. As President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, the editors of AEI’s Political Report roundup the major polls and look at the record thus far.

OVERALL APPROVAL: Americans greet presidents with high expectations, and they were particularly optimistic in early 2009, when large majorities voiced solid approval for Barack Obama. To take just one poll, 68 percent in the ABC News poll approved in February 2009.  But President Obama’s five-year average (51 percent) in the ABC News poll is “the lowest on record” from any President dating back to Harry Truman.  According to Gallup, only two presidents since Truman’s time—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—have had higher average ratings in their second terms than in their first.

CORE SUPPORT:  Obama has lost considerable support among two key large groups: whites and independents. Only around a third of whites approve of the job he’s doing now. Only 35 percent of independents in the early January Quinnipiac poll approved of President Obama.   And independents are important. Gallup reported recently that 42 percent of Americans called themselves independents in 2013, “the highest Gallup has measured” in 25 years of telephone polling.”

LEADERSHIP: President Obama has lost significant ground among Americans on most leadership traits since his presidency began. This isn’t surprising given the high hopes Americans had for him early on. But the decline in the past year on some key qualities has been especially steep. Fifty-seven percent in a Pew poll in January 2013 said the President was able to get things done.  Forty-three percent gave that response this past December. In January 2013, 59 percent said Obama was a strong leader.  By December only half of America agreed. Public perceptions of his communication skills have suffered, too, dropping from 76 to 68 percent during 2013.

PERSONAL QUALITIES have been a stronger suit for the President. Even though the President’s personal ratings have dropped somewhat in the past year, they still remain fairly high. Forty-six percent of registered voters said he was honest and trustworthy in Quinnipiac’s early January 2014 poll, down just slightly from 49 percent in May 2013.  Pew’s findings show a sharper drop from 66 percent in early 2013 to a still solid 52 percent in December 2013.

When it comes to another important personal quality, compassion, the President’s marks have fallen. Whereas, in the 2012 Election Day exit poll, Obama led Mitt Romney by 81 to 18 percent among voters who said the most important candidate quality was “cares about people like me.” According to a recent Pew poll, the percentage of people who say the President is someone who cares about people like them is 58 percent, down from 66 percent a year ago.

Americans aren’t sure that the President can recover from the events of the past few months. In the December NBC/WSJ poll, a third said recent events were a short-term setback for the President, but 54 percent said things were unlikely to get better for him.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and Jennifer Marsico a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.   

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for
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Jennifer K.
  • Jennifer K. Marsico is a senior research associate at AEI, working in the Political Corner. Her research focuses on elections and election reform, as well as government continuity issues. She is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is also a contributor to the AEIdeas blog, and has also written for many outside print and online publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Roll Call. Ms. Marsico serves as assistant director of the AEI-Brookings Continuity of Government Commission, and has contributed to recent studies on Supreme Court continuity, voter registration modernization, and civic participation in the digital age.

  • Phone: 202.862.5899

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