November 12, 2013

In a second term, once a president’s numbers decline, they never come back up.” That’s what Republican pollster Ed Goeas says, as reported by Alex Roarty. It’s a myth, and it it would be nice to kill this one off quickly.

To begin with: There have been all of 12 presidents in the polling era; Barack Obama is only the eighth to reach a second term. So it’s hard to make any Iron Laws of Politics out of only eight examples. Moreover, four of those presidents — Truman, Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush — all had drops in popularity associated with events which persisted to the end of their presidencies (Bush’s case is a little tricky because as the Iraq War was winding down, a recession began which continued getting worse until he left office). So the question in those cases is presumably not about public opinion, but about events, and we can easily see that events at other points in a president’s term (say, the Reagan recession, or Clinton’s poor first two years) can be overcome.

Moreover, presumably Goeas isn’t looking at Eisenhower and Clinton, whose were basically pretty popular throughout their second terms (all numbers here from Gallup).

Ronald Reagan (Ira Schwarz/Associated Press)
Ronald Reagan (Ira Schwarz/Associated Press)

The problem is that this leaves only Ronald Reagan as a president who had an event which severely depressed his approval ratings during the second term but ended in time for his numbers to recover. Uh oh. In that case, Reagan’s approval ratings did recover, second term notwithstanding. Reagan’s approval dropped to around 50 percent after Iran-Contra broke in November 1986 and basically stayed there through June 1988, after which he recovered rapidly, eventually reaching an impressive 63 percent. At best, one might say that after Iran-Contra faded from the headlines after summer 1987, it took another year for Reagan’s approval to rebound, but it certainly did.

And there’s no shortage of other presidents who had approval-rating improvements during their second terms. Ike, for example, slumped in spring 1958 down to around 50 percent but recovered rapidly and by spring 1959 was over 60 percent. Bill Clinton was in the mid-50s in 1997 but then improved to the mid-60s in 1998. Even Harry Truman edged up about 10 percentage points over his lows at the end of his presidency.

This of course doesn’t mean that Obama’s approval will inevitably rise from where it is now. What it does mean is that if events would otherwise predict improvement, then he’s likely to have improvement. There’s no second-term magic to prevent it. Indeed, Roarty quotes political scientist Alan Abramowitz saying just that, but buries it deep into a story which flat-out asserts at the top that presidents “whose approval plummets in their second term don’t recover.”

If the economy stalls, or Syria or Afghanistan or Iran goes bad, or HealthCare.gov malfunctions remain in the headlines, then Barack Obama’s approval ratings will likely continue to sink. If, on the other hand, the economy booms, Afghanistan winds down and no new wars break out, and the Affordable Care Act works reasonably well, it’s very likely Obama’s approval ratings will once again move over 50 percent. Second term? When it comes to popularity, it’s not really a factor.