The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It took a scandal to make Reagan as unpopular as Obama is now

Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Nancy brandishes a sign on which is written the anti-drug campaign slogan "just say no". (Pete Souza/White House/Sygma/Corbis)

Ten days after-the-fact is perhaps a bit early to complete any triage of the wounds inflicted on President Obama by the midterm elections, but it is not too early to say one thing: It could have been worse. Like, Ronald-Reagan worse.

For the most part, as that chart shows, the short-term effects of midterms are basically zero. In the case of our recent elections, it's worth pointing out that a key reason the midterms went so badly was precisely that Obama isn't very popular. A full one-third of people who responded to exit polls said that their vote was meant to show opposition to the president. Ninety-two percent of those voters voted Republican (raising some questions about the message-sending/cognitive skills of those who voted for Democrats). Obama hasn't gotten less popular after the midterm bloodbath which happened because Obama was already unpopular.

Anyway, the thing that's mostly interesting about that chart is the Reagan line. For the cult-like status that the former president has achieved, the guy had a pretty brutal late-1986. It's not because the Republicans dropped seats in the House (which they did, but only five). It's because of a thing called "Iran-Contra." (Millennials, this is why we invented Wikipedia for you.)

Using polling from WaPo-ABC News polls (and some Gallup number for older presidents), we pulled together this graph of two-termers' second terms, marking the midterms so that you can see the ups and downs. (We haven't polled since the midterms, so Obama's line ends before it.) Flip through.

That Reagan dip is pretty much an outlier. George Bush's unpopularity has tracked roughly with Obama's, though a bit lower. Clinton's stayed pretty flat, dipping slightly once Monica Lewinsky became a household name. Nixon didn't quite make it to midterms. Reagan's dropped pretty dramatically -- almost down to where Obama is now.

The clear winner here is Dwight Eisenhower. His Republican Party lost two seats in his second midterm elections, but he still ended up near 80 percent approval. The Post isn't generally in the habit of making predictions, but we'll make an exception here: Obama will not pull an anti-Reagan, and see his numbers shoot up to 80 percent post-election. But, then, our triage isn't complete.