Obama’s Surging Popularity Is Starting to Look a Lot Like Reagan’s in 1988

Surprise! Obama’s giving Democrats a lift on his way out the door. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the 2012 presidential cycle, Republicans spent an inordinate amount of time comparing Obama’s reelection campaign to that of Jimmy Carter in 1980, which of course made Mitt Romney exactly what he wanted to be: the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. But while Carter lost by a landslide in 1980, Obama was reelected by a healthy, if not overwhelming, margin. And so, going into this cycle, it’s Obama who is being compared to Reagan as a two-term president whose popularity (or the lack thereof) looms large over the contest to succeed him.

Given the famously polarized climate and high “wrong track” sentiment, you’d figure Hillary Clinton would be struggling to rid herself of the dead political weight of the 44th president. But one of the surprises of 2016 has been Obama’s steadily improving job approval ratings. He was mired in negative-popularity territory and in the low-40s for job approval for much of 2013 and 2014, and only partially recovered in 2015. But as of today the RealClearPolitics polling average for Obama’s job approval rating is 52 percent, with 44 percent disapproving. Gallup’s last three-day average puts Obama’s job approval ratio at 54-43. That’s better than he was doing on the eve of his reelection in 2012. And it’s very similar to Reagan’s numbers late in his second term, which helped George H.W. Bush win in 1988. The other relatively recent precedent for a two-term president was Bill Clinton in 2000; his Gallup job approval rating on the eve of the 2000 elections was 57 percent, but it was offset by very poor personal favorability ratings and the frequent reluctance of Al Gore to embrace the record of his own administration.

Will Obama’s popularity (assuming it remains more or less at current levels) matter in November? It could; it’s one part of the formula used by most analysts for “the fundamentals,” the aspects of the election that have nothing to do with the campaigns. And given the continuing hate and rage aimed at Obama by Republicans, a relatively sunny public-opinion attitude toward the incumbent can help Democrats cast their opponents as extremist ideologues who have given their presidential nomination to the anti-Obama, a living embodiment of hate and rage. If the Clinton-Trump race tightens up, Obama’s job approval ratio is something to watch closely.

Obama’s Popularity Much Like Reagan’s in 1988