What Barack Obama and George W. Bush have in common

November 8, 2013

President Obama ran -- and was elected -- as the anti-George W. Bush. And yet, as he finishes his fifth year in office, new data from the Pew Research Center show that Obama's job approval ratings are strikingly similar to where his predecessor stood at this time in his tenure.

Take a look at this chart via Pew that compares the approval ratings of the last four two-term presidents at the end of their fifth year in office:

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew


The trend lines are remarkably similar for the two men. In December 2012, Obama's job approval stood at 55 percent while in the latest Pew data it has dipped to 41 percent. That tracks almost exactly with Bush, whose job approval went from 48 percent in December 2004 to 36 percent in November 2005. (Remember that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, and Bush's handling -- or mishandling -- of the natural disaster was baked into his numbers by this point in 2005.) Among independents, the two men also find themselves in remarkably similar places. Bush was at 29 percent approval among independents while Obama is currently at 32 percent.

Some of the similarity between the polling arcs of the two presidents can be explained by the remarkable partisan polarization that has seized the country over the past decade-plus. Consider this remarkable fact: of the 10 most polarized years in American politics, nine have been with either Bush or Obama in office. And it's not hard to imagine that 2013 will join the list too.

Image courtesy of Gallup.
Image courtesy of Gallup.

Partisans in this day and age are essentially immoveable. (The lone exception was in Bush's final year in office although, even then, two-thirds of Republicans approved of the job he was doing.) If the president is in their party, they love him. If not, they hate him. And independents, are, well, independents. Once the election glow has worn off, they are far more likely to jump ship -- perhaps expressing their broader disgruntlement with politics and the parties than with any one politician.

Of course, Bush's approval ratings continued to crater as his second term went on. By the end of his eighth year in office, just three in 10 Americans generally approved of the job he was doing. Obama still has three years to turn around his downward trending approval ratings, and, if the economy does pick up significantly in that time, his numbers likely won't continue to follow the Bush track.

But, regardless, Bush and Obama do have something in common: Both were/are president during a changed time in American politics, a time when the sort of robust popularity that a Clinton or a Reagan enjoyed in their second term may simply be impossible. It's the new normal of American politics.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · November 8, 2013