All Presidents have their Waterloo: Reflections on Obama’s Declining Approval Ratings

The Obama administration is definitely in a funk.  Polls of all stripes have shown a strong decline in his approval ratings.  Indeed, shows that from Obama’s inauguration in late January  to mid-December 2012 his approval ratings have dropped by about 11 points—51 to 42 (see below).

So what has happened to Obama?

Many analysts argue that Obama’s decline results exclusively from the disastrous kick-off of the most visible aspect of his flagship Affordable Care Act: the state insurance exchanges (Gallup, CNN, Time).   The problems associated with the roll out  varied from the midnight exception for small businesses in year one to the website glitches at first launch to the cost impact on cheaper pre-ACA private sector options to pushing off the December 23rd deadline.  The logic of these arguments go something like: Obama’s approval ratings have fallen, people have increasingly disliked Obama’s handling of healthcare reform, ergo Obama’s declining numbers are a result of the roll out fiasco.

At first blush, such arguments make sense: when looking at trends in Obama’s approval ratings and handling of healthcare reform, both are in decline after the botched launch of (see above).

That said, an equally plausible argument is that Obama’s fall in the numbers is nothing more than what should be expected.  Indeed, both academic research and a simple look at past polls show that approval ratings decline over the course of an administration irrespective of the president (Mueller).  Put simply, such decay is the natural order of things: some voters become disillusioned as abstract concepts become operationalized into concrete policy, turning their Prince Charming into a frog.

So there we have it—two competing explanations for Obama’s declining numbers.  Which one accounts for what we are seeing today?

To answer this question, I first compare the average approval rating at the beginning of the presidency with that at the end of one year.   Here I look at approval ratings for presidencies from 1942 on and compare them to Obama.

So what do we find?

The short answer is that Obama’s declining numbers are within the average of second term presidents.  Indeed, since January 2013 Obama’s approval ratings fell by 11 points, while the approval of second term president declined on average by 12 points.

Obama 2nd Term Average of 2nd Term Presidents
Average of January Polls



Average of December Polls







From this angle, Obama looks pretty average, declining no more than his predecessors—the caveat being that he did begin at a lower starting point than past presidents (51 versus 59 points).

Some might argue, however, that, such a simple analysis of averages doesn’t take into account the idiosyncratic aspects of each administration.  What if a given president presided over or inherited a very favorable economy; should he be compared to one that had to confront a very poor economy?   Likewise, a president who experiences a “rally-around-the-flag” event like Nagasaki or 9/11 shouldn’t be compared to one during peacetime.  Apples are not oranges, or so the argument goes.

To account for this comparability problem, I employ a multivariate regression approach, which models approval data since 1942 against a variety of factors, including unemployment, time in office, and important events like wars, corruption scandals and sneak attacks[1].  Using such a technique allows us to test counter-factuals like whether Obama is performing well or not given the current political and economic scenario.

So what do we find?


Here we see that Obama seems to be performing slightly worse than what would have been expected according to our model: 45 versus 41 points—a gap of 4 points. Obama’s numbers are worse than expected, but only marginally so.

So what does this all mean?

First and foremost, there is indeed slippage in Obama’s numbers.  This is a fact!   And some of this might be associated with the president’s handling of healthcare reform.  But the empirical evidence shows that Obama’s decline is within the historical average—around 12 points. So what?  In my view, these data suggest that all second term presidents have their own unique Waterloo that pisses voters off: Obama’s so happens to be ACA. If it wasn’t ACA, it would have been something else. Practically speaking, a second term president will necessarily lose supporters as he makes policy decisions that turn people off—you can’t be all things to all people.

Second, perhaps more interesting is that Obama’s approval ratings at the beginning of his second term were lower than the historical average: 52 versus 59.  The million dollar question, of course, is why.  Is this something that is specific to Obama—perhaps Obamacare itself?  Or is this something that has more to do with what is in the present drinking water like the increased tribalization of the political parties?  I am a red bellied Sneetch, and you are a blue bellied Sneetch—I, therefore, hate you.  Whatever the reason, Obama relative decline seems to be nothing beyond the normal.

[1] Our approval forecasting model employs data from 1942 to December 2013.  Specifically, we regress approval on approval lagged by a month, unemployment, time in office, time in office squared, dummy for war, dummy for administration, and a dummy for specific events (9/11, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, etc.).  The adjusted R square for the model is 0.9.