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Obama's Public Support Cracking at 6 Months

Obama's Public Support Cracking at 6 Months

By David Paul Kuhn - July 23, 2009

Barack Obama is a long way from his honeymoon.

This week Obama crossed the six-month mark with a public approval rating in the lower half of modern presidents, compared to the 11 presidents regularly polled by Gallup in the post-War World II era.

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Obama's final approval rating after his first half year in office, based on a three-day average as of Tuesday, is 57 percent--ranking eighth of the 11 modern presidents.

In statistical terms, Obama is tied with George W. Bush (whom Obama technically falls a point above) and Richard Nixon (whom Obama technically falls a point below).

But W. Bush's was steady during his first six months. By comparison, Obama's had an average public approval of 67 percent during his first week in office. Twenty-five weeks later, his weekly average fell to 59 percent.

Obama is not nose diving. Over the course of his first six months, Obama remains on average more popular than any president since Jimmy Carter.

Obama averages an approval rating of 62 percent during his first half-year in office, tying Richard Nixon for the mean of modern presidents, and only a point below his standing during his first 100 days. But it's the direction of his momentum that should trouble this White House.

Obama's approval was down 6 points at six months, compared to day 100. Just this week, the Washington Post-ABC News Poll reported that only 49 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling health care, a drop of 8 points since the 100-day mark. Even fewer Americans, a mere 43 percent, approve of his handling of the federal budget deficit--a drop of 9 points since the 100-day mark.

That loss of public support on two key issues, combined with the ebb in his overall standing, marks an intangible early wound to this president.

Obama came into office rife with comparisons to the giants of the Democratic Party, men like FDR or JFK. But JFK stood at 75 percent during June and July; 18 points above Obama's standing at the six-month mark. Obama still stands a couple points above Ronald Reagan's six-month average, however.

Certainly, early standing is not destiny. Some presidents who left office in poor standing, like Carter and Lyndon Johnson, were more popular at this point.

Obama maintains the strongest support of his base, 90 percent, of all modern presidents. But even that plus comes with a bite.

His support from the political opposition is the second lowest on average, 28 percent. That's above Bill Clinton, who never had Obama's Democratic backing, and a couple points below W. Bush's Democratic backing over his first six months. As a result, Obama continues to be the most polarizing modern president.

Liberals have urged Obama to disregard his GOP opposition. But most moderate and conservative Democrats lack that luxury. There are 49 House Democrats from districts won by John McCain in 2008. And it's those 49, along with other members from swing districts and some similarly positioned Democratic senators, whose seats are most vulnerable next year.

Obama's ability to earn moderate and conservative Democrats' support is inextricably tied to his ability to promise electoral cover during difficult legislation. But those Blue Dog Democrats will head home in August to ads framing health care reform as "rationing," with a tax hike to boot. They are tied to a still-popular president, but one whose electoral cover has shrunk.

Obama's greatest stake remains in non-partisans. The general rule for modern presidents is that as the middle goes, so goes their mandate. Many initially popular presidents, like Carter and Reagan, first lost that middle, and their majority, by their first winter in office.

Obama's independent support has averaged 60 percent over his first six months in office. But in the past three weeks, that independent support has held in the mid 50s.

So Obama heads into the dog days of his legislative summer yet to show any of the big law he promised, for the big vision that greeted him at his inauguration.

Obama has legislative victories: the $787 billion economic stimulus package, new government regulation of tobacco products, the expansion of children's health insurance and legislation that makes it easier to win pay-discrimination lawsuits. But the stimulus was a consequence of the recession, not Obama. And none of that legislation was either hard won, or a central tenet of his campaign.

Obama's greatest ambitions remain ahead, especially health care reform--which he had hoped to sign into law before the August recess.

The tick tock is growing louder. A president's influence in Congress is directly tied to the perception of his public support. That bully pulpit is also traditionally strongest during the first year in office. Next year Congress will face midterm elections. At that point, policy becomes only that much more political and legislative victories that much more difficult.

Gerald Ford, who never recovered from his decision to pardon Nixon, and Clinton have the lowest average job approval over their first six months in office--at about 50 percent. JFK and Johnson wielded the highest average, with three-fourths of Americans behind them during their first half year.

Obama remains in the middle, where he was by the close of his first month as well.

Yet even the most remarkable fact of Obama's first 100 days, compared to past presidents, has eroded. The portion of Americans who thought that the nation was on the right track roughly doubled from Obama's first day to his 100th, from 22 to 42 percent respectively based on the RealClearPolitics average. But today, only 37 percent of Americans believe the country is on the right track.

This is not how Democrats imagined Obama's narrative six months ago.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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