Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, & Barack Obama: Comparing Presidential Favorability with Job Approval

President Clinton stands apart from Presidents Bush and Obama in that his job approval rating varied widely from his favorability ratings at times during his presidency. Bush and Obama have seen no such variation.

About a month ago, Gallup released a survey on former President George W. Bush that received a surprising amount of attention - for the first time since April 2005, before Hurricane Katrina turned his personal popularity upside down for the remainder of his presidency, the once deeply unpopular former President saw his favorable rating surpass his unfavorable rating (49/46%).

Notable not only for the incredible duration of his unpopularity, his most recent Gallup standing represents a 31 POINT shift in Bush's net favorable/unfavorable rating since shortly after leaving office, when he clocked in at a dismal 35/63%.

So there you have it. A man who was disliked by super-majorities just four years ago now finds public opinion split on the subject. And while his rating is lower than both the current President's (who last found himself at 55/43% in a Gallup survey), and his predecessor's (who was at 69/27% last August), it's still a bit hard for this political junkie to fathom the guy that even Republicans had lost faith in could possibly be viewed favorably by a near majority of the country.

But lets not make more of this survey than it actually is, as several mostly conservative pundits and bloggers did by claiming the results confirmed George W. Bush was somehow more popular than Barack Obama.

Where did conservatives go wrong in making this assertion?  They made the mistake of merging the meaning of favorability with job approval by assuming that Obama's 47/44% job rating (as reported by the Gallup daily tracker on June 11th, the day the Bush favorability poll was released) was the same thing as Bush's favorability rating (as measured June 1-4, 2013).

It's not.

Asking a voter whether they view an individual favorably or unfavorably is different in both language and meaning than asking a voter if they approve or disapprove of the job someone is doing.

For example, President Obama's most recent favorability rating, as measured by Gallup in April of this year, put him at a fairly strong 55/43%. The Gallup daily tracking poll taken at the same time put his job approval rating, however, at a less impressive 48/46%. George W. Bush left office with a poor 40/59% favorability rating, but an even worse 34/61% job approval rating. Gallup's final survey of President Clinton's favorability, while still in office, was December 2-4, 2000, and found him at an impressive 57/41%. But Americans were even more fond of the job Clinton was doing as President than they were of him personally, with 60% expressing approval, and 35% expressing disapproval.

So a few bloggers got it wrong in asserting that Bush is now more popular than Obama, as job approval is not precisely predictive of favorability. But "precisely" is the operative word there.

A close comparison of the entirety of polling on the favorability and job approval ratings of the last three Presidents illustrates that while favorability and job approval ratings are not mirror images of one another, they travel in fairly close lock-step, with only one exception: Bill Clinton from 1998-2000.

Just consider the chart below of President Barack Obama's national favorability and job approval averages since taking office in 2009, broken down into four month periods, or thirds of a year:

Data includes 410 favorability surveys taken from January 20, 2009-present, and 645 job approval surveys, compiled from Polling Report, Real Clear Politics, and TPM Poll Tracker.

As the averages illustrate, Obama has maintained a slightly higher favorability rating than job approval rating throughout his presidency. But the trends, the dips and bounces, match up pretty closely, as the below line graph of the above data illustrates:

With the exception of the first year of his Presidency, Barack Obama's job approval/disapproval and favorable/unfavorable ratings have rarely deviated from the 50% level.

And while George W. Bush's overall trends were much different than Obama's, the pattern of favorability rating tracking closely to job approval was even more apparent throughout his 8 year presidency. See the tables and charts below of his ratings, averaged into 4 month increments.

Data includes 485 favorability surveys taken from January 20, 2001-January 20, 2009, and 1,428 job approval surveys, compiled from Polling Report and Real Clear Politics.

Unlike President Obama, George W. Bush's favorability and job ratings spiked after 9/11, just as they were falling for Obama around a similar point in his presidency. After reaching unsustainable highs in the fall of 2001, Bush's ratings fell, landing around 50% in mid-2004, where they remained until mid-2005, until they began an equally impressive fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 2006 ethics scandals, and eventually, the economic collapse of 2008.

Though the one constant in Bush's ratings over his eight years in office was how closely his job approval followed his favorability (much like President Obama). Such a constant was not present during Bill Clinton's time in office, or at least not during his 2nd term.

The charts below show a similar track for Bill Clinton in his first term as the track taken by both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. After a strong start, Clinton stumbled on both the jod approval and favorability front, only to recover throughout the 1996 election year, as well as the first year of his 2nd term. But when Monica Lewinsky hit the papers in 1998, a bizarre phenomenon began to occurr. See the chart and line graph below for an illustration:

Data includes 468 favorability surveys taken from January 20, 1993-January 20, 2001, and 737 job approval surveys, compiled from Polling Report and Real Clear Politics.

Unlike both his successors, Clinton experienced a period of divergence in his job approval and favorability ratings that lined up almost perfectly with the timeline of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. From 1993-1998, Americans opinion of the job Clinton was doing as President tracked very closely to their personal views of him. But as Republican attacks on his moral character sank in, his favorability turned southward, even as record economic expansion sent his job approval ratings soaring.

Consider the first four months of 1999. At the time, the President had just been acquitted of impeachment charges, as the stock market rallied to record highs. Clinton was enjoying a sky-high job approval average of +32, at the same time his personal favorability rating sunk to +3.

His favorability continued to fall throughout the rest of 1999, never truly recovering for the remainder of his presidency (his job approval ratings remained golden, however).

In the end, Conservatives were clearly mistaken to conflate Obama's job aproval and favorability rating. Personal feelings about a particular politician can, and often does track closely to feelings about that politician's job performance. But as Bill Clinton taught us, exceptions can arise. As for now, however, the current President, as battered as he is, is still better liked than his predecessor, at least according to Gallup.

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