President Obama. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

In a long New York Times magazine piece on Obama’s economic legacy, Andrew Ross Sorkin begins with this:

Two months ago, across an assembly-room table in a factory in Jacksonville, Fla., President Barack Obama was talking to me about the problem of political capital. His efforts to rebuild the U.S. economy from the 2008 financial crisis were being hit from left, right and center. And yet, by his own assessment, those efforts were vastly underappreciated.

An important piece of evidence backs that up. I’ve previously noted that, despite the prevailing narrative about “voter anger,” consumer sentiment is actually quite favorable — comparable with what it was in 1983, when it seemed obvious that the incumbent party could run successfully on a record of economic growth.

But here’s the problem for Obama: Unlike most recent presidents, this upward trend in consumer sentiment has not translated into higher approval ratings. Here is a graph that compares the relationship between consumer sentiment and presidential approval since the beginning of the consumer sentiment measure in 1960.


Graph by John Sides

For every president except Obama, the relationship is positive: As consumer sentiment becomes more positive, so does presidential approval. But in Obama’s case, the line is actually negative. Obama was relatively popular right after he was inaugurated — a brief honeymoon bump — but his approval rating fell within his first several months in office. Then, even as economic evaluations began to improve, his approval barely budged.

If presidential approval were simply a function of consumer sentiment and nothing else, Obama should have been more popular — approximately 11 percentage points more popular. But his approval ratings proved far more “sticky” than consumer sentiment alone would predict.

Why haven’t Obama’s approval ratings risen? One explanation is partisanship. It’s well-known that Democrats and Republicans have increasingly polarized views of presidents. That trend began well before Obama, but it has only become worse.

This partisan polarization helps explain why increasingly positive evaluations of the economy did not appear to improve Obama’s approval rating. Part of the reason is that the parties saw the economy differently: As I’ve argued, party drives how people respond to the economy.

But another reason is that, in an age of polarization, Americans may give little credit to a president not of their own party. A good comparison is again to the last quarter of 1983, when consumer sentiment was essentially the same as at the end of 2015. At that point in time, 87 percent of Republicans approved of President Ronald Reagan, as did 30 percent of Democrats. At the end of 2015, Obama’s support in his own party was almost as high, 79 percent, but it was much lower among Republicans, 10 percent —exactly where it had been for almost six years.

The graph above goes only through 2015. With Obama’s approval ratings creeping up, perhaps we’ll see a change by the end of his term. And it’s worth noting that, in general, voters give presidents too much credit or blame for the economy, given the limited tools that presidents have to affect the economy.

Nevertheless, Obama stands apart from many presidents. He’s presided over an economy recovery but has received little reward.