In March 2008, President George W. Bush’s approval rating was about 32 percent, according to Gallup, and the Labor Department reported unemployment rate had just risen to 5.1 percent.
In March of 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s approval was 51 percent with a 5.7 unemployment rate.
In March of 2016, President Barack Obama’s approval rating has peaked at 53 percent, a three-year high, with a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, an eight year low.
Comparing these two top-line statistics to the last two-term Republican presidents nearing the dusk of their service is a good way to get Republicans to start fuming with excuses, citing statistics they’d never cared about before or explaining that Obama’s popularity just doesn’t count.
Spinning and skewing is what you’re left with when you’re losing.
And the battle to equate President Obama’s legacy with the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency is failing miserably. The question now is: will Obama’s popularity continue to rise, as Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s did in their last months in office? Or might it sink, or hover around where it is now, which is about the best you can expect in a hyper-polarized political world?
Here are five reasons Barack Obama is becoming more popular, and why this trend may well continue.
- He’s excelled at the most important job he was hired to do.
Forget insuring 20 million Americans, fueling a renewable energy sector that could save the world, creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, appointing two eminently qualified Supreme Court Justices, or even negotiating to peacefully remove nearly all of Iran’s enriched uranium. Forget — but only for a minute, because these are real concerns that are being cynically deployed by conservatives who’ve backed policies that have created our long-term economic problems — the problems of labor force participation, wage growth, and other measures that indicate too much wealth is being sucked up to the top. Let’s just focus on the most important job this president had to do: stop a layoff crisis. As he took office, layoffs were at a 26-year high.
They are now near a 33-year low in raw numbers. These are raw numbers — not adjusted by how many people there are working. Fewer people are being laid off now than at any time since 1973. That may be because we have more people working in the gig economy with less job security, and without the benefits and bargaining power that come from a strong labor movement (which the right has systemically dismantled). But that was true in 2008 when Obama came into office and we were losing half a million jobs a month. Add in this chart and you see just how far we’ve come:
More Americans are working than ever before and initial unemployment claims continue to be below .2 percent of the workforce — a modern record and possibly the lowest per capita… ever.
- GOP debates always turn into Obama commercials.
During a flurry of GOP debates last year, Republican candidates waged a propaganda war against Obama’s record that encouraged Americans to be terrified of anything that casts a shadow. Record audiences tuned into an infomercial about the president’s failures. Then the field narrowed, and the GOP frontrunner was bragging about his dick from the center podium of a nationally-televised debate stage. Suddenly, a president who has been attacked from the right for being too “nuanced” didn’t seem so bad.
- Trump is terrible and the other candidates aren’t much better.
Donald Trump justifiably gets lots of grief for his demagoguery, his tendency toward fascism, and his barely-disguised bigotry. But when you listen to the other GOP candidates, you realize that their rhetoric is freighted with the same sort of dark warnings and ecstatic paranoia that has made Trump possible. Take Marco Rubio. Or take him apart, as Business Insider’s Josh Barro did:
Remember, Rubio is the candidate who says President Barack Obama is “undermining this country” as “part of a plan to weaken America on the global stage.” Rubio says of Obama that “all this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate.” He attacked the president’s choice to speak at a mosque as an example of his “constant pitting people against each other,” which is “hurting our country badly.”
Last month, when CNN asked Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant whether the senator believes Obama is “intentionally trying to destroy the country,” Conant said “absolutely.”
- Circumstances beyond our control affect us more than we ever like to realize.
Eight years ago no one imagined that one of the biggest problems in the global economy would be the declining cost of oil, which has resulted in extraordinarily low gas prices — a sudden tax break of sorts desperately needed by struggling Americans and despised by the global energy sector. President Obama’s policies had some play on this sudden break for low-income workers, but some factors are just beyond our control. Just as Saudi oil production may have hastened the end of the Soviet Union, a global oil glut offers both promise and peril for the current global economy. “In general, presidents and their policies matter much less for the economy’s performance than most people imagine,” Paul Krugman recently wrote. And even though jobs created under the last three Democratic presidents more than double those created under the last three Republicans, policy isn’t always enough to overcome the slings and arrows of a planet constantly in flux. The American economy, one the strongest in the world during recent shocks, has shown resiliency. That can always change, but one of the virtues voters seem to recognize in Obama is that, facing constant crises and even a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions in Syria, his presidency embodies the old Niebuhr adage: Obama accepts the things he cannot change, the courage to change the things he can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Because he’s seen the damage that the Iraq War has done and all he knows for sure is that he doesn’t want another one.
- He’s thinking ahead when his opponents don’t even seem to think.
Despite Republican objections otherwise, Barack Obama is still president. For him not to be able to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with more than 300 days left in his term would be an historic injustice. But that’s exactly the Republican plan. They immediately promised to even deny his nominee a hearing in the Senate. Instead of reacting angrily, the president has slowly and deliberately worked to select the person he’ll appoint and the strategy he’ll need to make sure that person ends up on the nation’s highest court. Facing a firm no, the president has assumed that the rhetoric he faces is as empty as it sounds. Will he win again? Only time will tell — and time seems to be on Barack Obama’s side.
Photo: President Obama holds a meeting with financial regulators to receive an update on their progress in implementing Wall Street at the White House in Washington March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque