Andrew Kohut: Will Obama Ride Reagan’s Ratings Roller Coaster?

Roundup: Media's Take

[Andrew Kohut is the president of the Pew Research Center.]

Despite a long, hard-fought election campaign, the public rallies to a new chief executive who has come to office riding a tide of national discontent and strong disapproval of his predecessor. His approval ratings remain high even as he proposes a dramatic new approach to the role of government that has many doubters. Surveys find that Americans think the president’s plan to rescue the nation’s troubled economy will work, yet many are fearful of key provisions. Indeed, the polls find the president more personally popular than his programs. Further, a wide partisan gap exists in attitudes toward the nation’s new leader.

The new president described above is, of course, Barack Obama — but, to a startling degree, it is also Ronald Reagan. A close look at Gallup’s polling of reactions to Reagan’s first few months in office provides striking parallels with what Pew Research Center polls now find about opinions of Mr. Obama. And a consideration of the Reagan experience may well give some clues as to what lies ahead for the 44th president.

The public’s bottom lines on Presidents Reagan and Obama early in their presidencies have so far been quite comparable: 60 percent and 59 percent of the public approved of the new presidents in mid-March, respectively. (Going into April, the lines diverge as a sympathetic public response to the March 31 attempt on Reagan’s life boosted his numbers, at least for short period.)

The parallels in the two presidents’ ratings go beyond overall results. Both were extremely popular among members of their own party, but each set off alarm bells among the opposition. Some 87 percent of Republicans approved of Reagan, while 88 percent of Democrats approve of Barack Obama. But both presidents evoked less positive opinion from the opposition than had their predecessor. Only 41 percent of Democrats approved of Reagan whereas 56 percent of Republicans had approved of Jimmy Carter in March 1977. President Obama scores only a 27 percent rating among Republicans, significantly lower than George W. Bush’s 36 percent approval score among Democrats in March 2001.

No small part of the polarized reaction to both new presidents is that each made proposals that went to the core precepts about government held by the two political parties. Reagan’s expressed desire to shrink government was as much an anathema to Democrats as Mr. Obama’s proposals to increase the size and influence of government are to Republicans. In May 1981, half of Democrats believed that Reagan’s budget cuts were too large, compared with just 15 percent of Republicans. These reactions are very similar to those evoked by any number of Obama administration proposals. For example, in March 81 percent of Democrats favored the stimulus package, while 67 percent of Republicans opposed it. And while an overwhelming majority of Republicans — 70 percent — said that Mr. Obama had proposed too much spending to address the economic situation, just 17 percent of Democrats agreed.

While partisanship plays a key role in reactions to both presidents, the wide scope of their proposals evoked a fair amount of anxiety among the public at large. Here is how Gallup summarized the results of its May 1981 survey: “While the public generally admires Reagan for his personal attributes … many people are either dubious or downright skeptical about the effectiveness of the president’s approaches to these [economic] problems.” The same poll found that while the public generally approved of Reagan’s handling of the economy, as many as 50 percent of Americans worried that reduced payments in Social Security, food stamps and welfare would hurt them and their families.

Today, 70 percent of Americans express confidence that President Obama will do the right thing on the economy, but the public has expressed decidedly mixed views of several of the specific policies aimed at dealing with the crisis. In March, the public was divided over aiding financial institutions and stressed homeowners, and just 30 percent favored loans to struggling automakers.

So far, concern over Mr. Obama’s policies has not translated into a loss of public support; nor did it for Ronald Reagan through much of 1981. But the public’s patience with Reagan was relatively short lived. By November, when the jobless rate had risen to 8.3 percent, from 7.5 percent in January, a plurality of the public believed that Reaganomics would hurt, not help, their family finances. So began Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings slide. By December, according to Gallup, 49 percent approved of his job performance while 41 percent disapproved. With the economy faltering, his approval rating fell to 42 percent by July 1982, with 46 percent disapproving. His rating hit a low of 35 percent early the next year....

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