It’s time for President Obama to either become more popular than George W. Bush at the same stage of their presidencies — or to become another failed two-term president.
From September of their first years in office until winter/spring of their fourth years, Bush was far more popular than Obama, at least as measured by approval ratings. In the first half of 2012 (depending on when one judges it, some time between late January and early May), Obama caught up; he’s been, ever since, tracking Bush very closely. For well over a year now, I doubt that there was ever as much as a five point real difference in their same-day approval.
Well, we’re now entering what will either be a new phase in the Bush/Obama comparisons, or a new phase in the Obama presidency. Using Gallup, Bush had spiked up a bit in July 2005, and was at 49 percent approval for a July 22-24 reading, but then fell back, scoring only 44 percent for July 25-28. He would never come close to 50 percent again; his remaining peak approval was a 46 percent poll in early September, and in fact most of the remainder of his presidency was under 40 percent.
Obama has been, in recent weeks, at the low portion of his post-election range. He’s at 46 percent in Gallup today. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but we can at least put some factors on the table. Bush’s collapse was about Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and then eventually the economy. In other words, events. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be anything on the table similar to that for Obama. But in summer 2005, no one could have predicted Katrina (as a presidency event, that is), and the economy was still chugging along. So the best we can say is that, unlike in 2005 with Iraq, there’s nothing on the horizon right now — but we should also be very modest about our ability to see new events coming. Basically, if nothing major happens and the economy continues modest growth, my guess would be that Obama remains within shouting range of 50 percent for some time, and therefore does open up a real gap ahead of Bush. But that’s a huge “if.”
And as a reminder: Yes, all of this matters. It matters for the midterm elections; it will matter to the 2016 presidential election; and in the meantime, it matters because all those who the president deals with will tend to give him more leeway if he is popular with their constituencies.