Cheer up, President Obama! The worst of the criticism is (probably) over.

July 28, 2014

Obama, sweating it in 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson has had enough. The "disastrous policies" of President Obama, he writes, are "premised not in incompetence, but in maliciousness." This comes as Republicans (and Democrats) hand-wring over impeachment, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin launches some sort of Internet TV network to offer her insights on just how bad Obama is (among other things).

All of this frustration is predicated in large part on the shaky performance of the president on international issues and immigration. But part of it, too, is that Obama's been around long enough to offer lots of fodder for his critics, warranted or not. So should we expect that rhetoric to continue to ramp up?

The former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate says was created in response to "media filters." (Sarah Palin via Facebook)

We wanted to track how rhetoric against sitting presidents changed over time, so we dug into the news archives at It lets you search for words in proximity to other words, so we looked for the president's name near these terms:

  • "Incompetent"
  • "Dangerous"
  • "Worst president"
  • "Scary"
  • "America as we know it"

There are some false positives, to be sure, but the overall trend suggests that this is a pretty decent guide. Our results (color-coded by party to help you distinguish between administrations):

You'll notice that, overall, the number of mentions spiked quickly under Bush. This is almost certainly not because Bush was exceptionally polarizing -- or, at least, not only because of that. It is, instead, because of your friend and mine, the Internet.

So we decided to link each year's increase to the president's first year in office. The percentages below (and in the charts that follow) are the percent increase in each year of the presidency over (or under) the negative mentions in the first year.

The pattern is obvious. As reelection approaches, negative mentions spike. Afterward, it seems to sort of taper off -- at least in the limited examples in our pool (Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and one year of Obama).

It seems as though it's harder to ramp up the rhetoric in the second term of a president. After all, if you've spent the first term arguing what a bad president the incumbent is, what else can you say in term two besides, see? There are still twice as many negative mentions as in the first year in office, on average, but it doesn't seem to climb.

In short, it's not just Obama. Every president has been coupled to "worst president" or "incompetent" at some point, usually right as they're running for reelection. We won't speculate on why that might be.

In Reagan's second term, there was a slight increase over time, but not much.

The huge spike in Clinton's numbers in his second term was thanks to his extra-presidential (and -marital) activities.

Anti-Bush rhetoric ramped up again for midterms in 2006.

So far, that hasn't happened to Obama.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
Continue reading 10 minutes left
Show Comments