Posted by: Jeff | December 5, 2009

Approval and Unemployment

The right has pushed a meme for a few months now that suggests President Obama’s approval rating is “tanking.”  This suggestion points to dipping approval as evidence that his legislative agenda is a failure and that independent voters are feeling buyer’s remorse at having hoped for positive change versus no change at all (or is it the socialism they’re regretting?).

But as in most political arguments, this line of thinking doesn’t give a complete picture.  Historically, the strongest indicator of presidential approval has been economic performance.  And though President Obama didn’t cause the current economic downturn, he inherited it in full swing.  Campaign rhetoric lends itself to promises of quick fixes and widespread optimism.  Yet here we are nearly a year into Obama’s first term, and unemployment has climbed above 10%.  GDP growth is back and the stock market has largely recovered, but employment numbers are lagging, and this is where most Americans feel the real bite of the sour economy.  They see a stimulus that hasn’t improved the situation so much as prevented it from getting worse, and there’s some animosity.  But what is surprising to me is that there isn’t more.

Yglesias posts an interesting graph depicting Ronald Reagan’s approval against unemployment numbers in the 1980s:

Clearly, unemployment and presidential approval in this case are inversely related – as unemployment climbs, approval drops accordingly.  So with the steady and precipitous rise of unemployment in 2009, one would expect the same degree of erosion in Obama’s numbers, no?  Well:

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics (4. December 2009)

You can see that approval rating has indeed fallen, but not to the degree that one might expect given the historical correlation and the magnitude of the recent unemployment spike. The most interesting thing to note here is that in the period between 1981 and 1983, unemployment rose about 3%, and Reagan’s approval rating fell from a net positive of about +45 (net = approval – disapproval) to a net negative of -20.  In other words, that’s like falling from an approval/disapproval rating of 75/25 to 40/60.  In 2009, unemployment also rose about 3%.  Barack Obama’s net approval went from +45 to +10.

So perhaps Obama is weathering the storm as well as he can after all – keep in mind also that the particular legislative challenges of contemporary Congress have heightened as well.  And with the recent news that unemployment in November may have leveled off, recovery may be on the way – for both a beleagured workforce and the White House:

The unemployment rate edged down to 10.0 percent in November, and nonfarm payroll employment was essentially unchanged (-11,000), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. In the prior 3 months, payroll job losses had averaged 135,000 a month. In November, employment fell in construction, manufacturing, and information, while temporary help services and health care added jobs.


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