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Obama: Sittin’ Pretty?

Obama with cowboy hat

Is Obama really in as bad shape as people think he is?

This is a pretty rough time for the Obama presidency. His approval rating has sunk to 45%, the recovery is faltering and uncertain, and Republicans are sure to gain Congressional seats in the fall. Even liberals are questioning whether Obama has lost all his magic, and conservatives are licking their lips at the possibility of a one-term presidency. Obama needs something to save him.

Or does he?

The view I outlined above has been pretty popular recently, but it’s missing some important pieces of context. Let me explain:

Obama’s situation has drawn a lot of attention because of how far his approval has dropped, but is it really that surprising, or that troubling? We already knew he was inheriting two wars, massive debts, an economy in free-fall, and an unpopular bailout program from the Bush administration. On top of that, he had soaringly unrealistic expectations heaped upon him, so it was only natural that a lot of admirers would be disappointed. Since his inauguration, he’s also been hit with a floundering economic recovery, deteriorating progress in Afghanistan, Congressional gridlock and descent into absolute partisanship, national security failures, signs of massive negligence in regulatory agencies, watered-down attempts at reform, flaring racial tensions, the massive BP oil disaster, unemployment soaring to almost 10%, and the entire Fox News Network acting like a hired hit squad against his administration…
…and almost half the nation is still happy with the job he’s doing?

When you look at it that way, it’s much easier to see that Obama himself might actually be doing pretty well. If this is his level of approval with everything going wrong, imagine what it will be like if a few things start going right (or more accurately, if just the economy starts going right).

Head shots of Reagan and Carter

Obama's approval ratings have started out very similar to both Reagan's and Carter's. The only conclusion: it's too early to draw conclusions.

The other thing is historical context. Within his first two years in office, Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings sank much lower than Obama’s current ones, and that didn’t stop him from absolutely crushing Walter Mondale in the election two years later. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s approval rating dropped as low as 37% in his first two years, before steadily turning around along with the economy.

All of this is not to say that Obama’s success is assured, but rather that the going may not be as tough for him as it seems. A lot can happen in two years, and Obama’s approval ratings graph could still turn out looking like either Reagan’s or Carter’s. Either way, his critics should be careful about underestimating him so soon.

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