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What Obama’s crashing poll numbers really mean

November 20, 2013, 3:00 PM UTC

Obama’s disapproval rating recent hit 55%-his worst ever.

Of course it would be ridiculous to compare a hurricane that wrought horrendous loss of life and destruction with the botched rollout of a law that aims to extend health coverage to the uninsured. But give the New York Times a little bit of credit. The paper—in a Friday front-pager that’s launched a flurry of outraged takedowns—never claimed the direct outcomes of Hurricane Katrina and the healthcare law’s debut deserve to be considered side by side. What the Times story really posited was that the crisis this White House now faces could mark a political inflection in Obama’s presidency similar to the way Bush lost public faith after mangling the response to the Katrina disaster. If the White House can’t turn it around, this line of thinking goes, the debacle could ripple through what remains of Obama’s presidency, undermining his ability to advance his agenda.

That’s not an unreasonable premise. Just a few weeks ago, Ezra Klein—author of one of those rebukes of the New York Times piece—argued that blundering Obamacare’s launch dealt a serious injury to Obama’s much bigger vision of a nimble, 21st Century government. Even if the law becomes a runaway success, he said, “reviving the idea that government can do big things right will be harder.” It’s too early to credibly assess the full impact of the rollout on Obama’s broader program. The New York Times pointed to a pair of recent polls indicating a majority of Americans now distrust Obama—a first. Fresh evidence of Obama’s skid comes today from a Washington Post/ABC poll that finds his disapproval rating at 55 percent, his worst ever showing on that score.

Tim Geithner did not ‘bail out’ his new employer But those surveys miss a structural difference in the popular attitudes toward Bush and Obama that makes even a purely political appraisal of the two moments pretty wobbly. Consider how each president’s approval ratings compare to the sense of whether the country, generally, is in decent shape. Bush enjoyed a burst of popularity after the September 11 attacks and the initially successful invasion of Afghanistan. But he saw his approvals begin a long, slow slide after his reelection. That loss of altitude strikingly mirrored the public perceptions about the state of the country, as measured by Gallup:


One way to understand why these two trend lines match up so neatly in Bush’s second term is that people increasingly viewed the President as part of the problem. As things got worse—with the Bush administration losing control of the situation in Iraq and mounting a shockingly incompetent response to the flooding of a major American city—Bush himself was as likely to be seen as a feature of the bad news as he was a potential solution to it. Republican pollster David Winston says Katrina accelerated that reassessment. “That was very much a key inflection moment in terms of how people viewed his role and the presidency given the situation with the country,” he says. Now look at how Obama’s fortunes relate to the same measure:


He rode a movement candidacy to office at a time when the entire country teetered on the brink of economic collapse. No wonder then that the two trend lines start so far apart: People understood that he inherited a crisis and had been elected to fix it. Over the last five years, popular satisfaction with the state of affairs has bumped along around the 20 percent line. But Obama has managed to float above that assessment on a cushion of enduring goodwill. An exit poll from the 2012 election helps explain that durability: By a margin of 53 to 38, voters continued to blame Bush more than Obama for the country’s current economic troubles. Winston argues voters finally began assigning responsibility for the sluggish recovery to Obama in late spring of 2013—a development evident in his waning popularity ever since, and one that the healthcare fiasco threatens to exacerbate.

It may be that the President can emerge from this crisis with his problem-solving credentials intact. As some of the critics of the Katrina comparison note, the hurricane was a discreet event. Once Bush bungled the response, he didn’t get a second or third chance to make it right. The implementation of the healthcare law, on the other hand, is rolling process. Obama will get his first do-over at the end of the month, when his administration has pledged to have accessible to the vast majority of users. But if foul-ups keep dogging the law, look for confidence in Obama’s leadership to continue its tailspin. His approval rating will merge with the gauge of the general state of affairs—a signal that the epic management failure defining the healthcare rollout so far has prompted a wholesale reevaluation of the President. And as Bush’s example shows, second-term woes can be hard to shake.