December 24, 2012
President Obama
President Obama in Iowa on Jan. 25, 2012 (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

How is Barack Obama doing in the polls after the election? Quite well, actually. 

During the election year, you may recall that he was quite a bit more popular (measured by Gallup approval numbers) than were one-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush and solidly less popular than easily reelected presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Instead, Obama closely tracked George W. Bush.

On the other hand, Obama’s overall approval pattern through his first term wasn’t at all like his immediate predecessor’s. Instead, Obama was like a less popular version of Nixon, Reagan and Clinton: all four of them were unpopular enough at their low points that they were apparently in big trouble (and Reagan and Clinton both were clobbered in midterm elections), and all recovered for the election year. 

So what are the patterns to look for after the election? 

George W. Bush’s approval ratings basically were one long-term slide from his September 2001 spike. They flattened out from about May 2004 through Election Day 2004, and they even moved up a bit after the election, staying above 50 percent approval most of the time through mid-March 2005, after which he fell below 50 percent and kept falling. Bush was right at 50 percent at this point in December 2004.

Nixon, Reagan and Clinton all basically stayed popular up to the point where something major happened to disrupt that perception. Nixon’s approval rating was at 62 percent immediately after the election in 1972, and still at 59 percent in December, but soon after that, Watergate took hold in the public consciousness and his approval rating collapsed rapidly. Reagan was at peak popularity after the election and maintained it — with approval ratings typically above 60 percent — until November 1986, when the Iran-Contra scandal was revealed. This severely hurt his popularity for most of the remainder of his term. Clinton’s reelection pushed his approval rating into the high 50s, but it took the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 to get him steadily well over 60 percent.

Gallup has had Obama regularly above 50 percent since the election, and he sits at 57 percent now after spiking some in the last week. There is, of course, no guarantee that he’ll follow any previous example, but the path he’s been on suggests that Gallup ratings will remain at or over 50 percent for some time. That is, until a new recession, or some major scandal, changes everything again.

In other words, it might be time to get used to the idea that, despite ups and downs in his presidency, Barack Obama will wind up a moderately popular president — or at least spend some time appearing to be one.