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By Jay Cost

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Reagan, Obama, and Presidential Teflon

Steve Kornacki recently suggested that President Obama's job approval rating might be resistant to public uncertainty over his policies. He might be the "New Teflon President." He writes:

Popular discontent also seems to be mounting over Obama's approach to government spending and budget deficits, areas where Republicans have aggressively targeted the president for criticism...

You might think this would all be enough to inflict some serious wear-and-tear on Obama's popularity. After all, remember how little it took for Bill Clinton's numbers to deteriorate in the first months of his presidency?

So far, though, it's not happening...

Kornacki goes on to suggest that part of this immunity is probably because Obama inherited an economic mess - but he thinks there's more to it than that. In particular, he believes Obama might have a bit of Reagan's Teflon quality:

Democrats flogged Reagan relentlessly for his fiscal recklessness, and when he ran against Reagan in '84, Walter Mondale made the soaring debt his centerpiece issue. In one way, their effort succeeded: In an August 1984 poll, voters ranked the budget deficit as their top economic concern--tied with unemployment. And yet, the same poll found that voters who ranked deficits as their top concern preferred Reagan by a 64 to 25 percent margin. And overall, Reagan's approval rating stood at 55 percent--foreshadowing his 49-state landslide a few months later.

The explanation was simple: Americans largely viewed Reagan and his grandfatherly warmth with affection. They liked him personally and wanted him to succeed. And by '84, there were clear signs--deficits notwithstanding--that the country's economic heath had improved over the previous four years. So, they were happy to give Reagan the credit--and to accept his excuses for the runaway deficits and his promises to address them in his second term (which, of course, he didn't do).

Kornacki acknowledges that Reagan's job approval took a hit in the early 1980s with the economic recession - but nevertheless suggests that Reagan was able to stay above the fray. He was relatively unsullied by the rough-and-tumble of politics, which managed to tarnish his predecessors and successors.

I'm not a big believer in the concept of presidential Teflon. It probably exists, to an extent, but too much is made of it. I think it's one way that pundits misunderstand the electorate. In some ways, they assume too much of voters - like how much attention they pay to politics (much less than assumed) or how they evaluate political arguments (they rely much more heavily on partisanship). In other ways, though, they assume too little. During the horse race phase of the electoral campaign, pundits tease out electoral implications from the day's news. This activity implicitly assumes that voters care enough about the day's irrelevant minutiae, and that yesterday's minutiae no longer affect their thinking. So, they're narrow-minded, obsessive amnesiacs? I don't think so.

I think Teflon is one way to assume too little about voters. In this case, they were bewitched by Reagan's avuncular style, and evaluated him less harshly than they would another president. That does not say good things about the public, or the prospects for democratic accountability, which leaves me wondering: if people are susceptible to this kind of manipulation, wouldn't democracy have gone off the rails a long time ago? Since 1796, the out-party has always complained about how the demagogic witchcraft of the incumbent is bringing us to ruin - but lo and behold the Republic still thrives. At some point, we have to give the voters credit for this.

The alternative hypothesis about Reagan is that most people thought he did a good job on the big stuff, which is why Democrats were never able to sink his popularity. Right off the bat, this idea has two items to recommend it. First, it implies an electorate that's doing it's job - evaluating the President based on big issues like the performance of the economy. It also accounts for Reagan's rough sledding early in his term. Otherwise, we have to generate an ad hoc addenda to the Teflon hypothesis: somehow he developed it later on (after Pat Schroeder coined the phrase in August, 1983 when his net approval was around -1!).

In support of the alternative, I'd offer the following graph - which tracks Reagan's month-by-month job approval against the seasonally adjusted monthly unemployment rate. It also includes a marker for when the Iran-Contra story first broke.

Reagan Job Approval.jpg

From mid-1978 to mid-1980, unemployment was somewhere between 5% and 6.5%. However, it jumped up to about 7.5% during the brief recession of 1980. This slowdown helped Reagan in his bid to oust Jimmy Carter. It also explains why the electorate gave him high marks early on, despite the weak job market he inherited. But in late 1981, the economy slowed again, and the unemployment rate started climbing. That's when Reagan's approval numbers plummeted. What ultimately saved him was the quick turnaround of the economy: his job approval numbers have the same V-shape as the growth rate in GDP. After peaking in June of 1983, unemployment would continue to fall on his watch, ultimately down to 5.4% when he handed the reigns over to George H.W. Bush in January, 1989.

So, we see Reagan's job approval and the unemployment rate moving in tandem. Interestingly, we also see that Iran-Contra substantially affected his standing. The numbers are pretty stark. Reagan had a net approval rating of 36 in October, 1986. Two months later - after the scandal broke - it was down to just 4. By February of 1987, Gallup would find more Americans disapproving than approving. Ultimately, his numbers climbed back - probably because he was never accused of any wrongdoing.

All of this should serve as a qualification to the concept of Teflon. It might be that a less avuncular, colder chief executive would have suffered more than Reagan. Maybe he would have lost more seats in the 1982 midterm (though the GOP still lost 14% of its caucus, compared to 13% in 2006). Maybe Iran-Contra would have been such that his successor would have lost the 1988 election. It's impossible to say. Even if that is the case, this picture indicates that - while he might have had an elevated baseline to work with - Reagan's numbers still rose and fell with the economy and scandal. In fact, 77% of the changes in Reagan's job approval can be explained by two factors: variation in the unemployment rate and whether the poll was taken before or after Iran-Contra broke. That looks a lot like a presidency that's contingent upon the performance of the economy and the government. That's a good thing.

Even Eisenhower - the original Teflon President - was not immune to these ups-and-downs. The following graph has the story.

Eisenhower Job Approval.jpg

Eisenhower's popularity did not suffer much with the first recession on his watch. The economy contracted by 0.7% in 1953, and you can see the corresponding rise in unemployment - but his popularity only suffered modestly. However, in 1958 the economy again contracted - this time by 1.0% - and his approval rating took a bigger hit. In March of that year, Gallup found just 47% of Americans approving of his performance. Ike probably had a Teflon-coating, so that he did not suffer as much as other chief executives would have. For instance, Republicans in Congress suffered greatly from both economic slow-downs. But still: changes in the unemployment rate account for 58% of changes in his job approval.

The lesson from all this is pretty simple: there are limits to Teflon. At best, it gives some incumbents a cushion in their numbers, so that they do not suffer as much as others would. Frankly, I'm skeptical of even this. I think Ike definitely had a Teflon quality - probably because he won a war, probably because he was studiously non-divisive - but Reagan not so much. Ultimately, if the recovery from the '82-'83 recession had been less V-shaped, I think voters would have mercilessly booted him from office. If there had been more to Iran-Contra, I think the elder Bush would have lost in 1988. Reagan's approval numbers for the final five years of his term look exactly what you'd expect anybody's to look like when the economy is humming along as it was.

Sure, the Democrats complained about the deficits in the '80s; voters claimed to care, but didn't act on it. But deficits are a secondary issue. They're also symbolic: it's hard to identify a direct, personal effect from high deficits. Unemployment, wages, productivity, and the general state of the economy are, on the other hand, primary and concrete. So, it's not a huge surprise that Mondale got little traction on the deficit issue in 1984 - even though voters expressed concern. In fact, that concern about deficits was a sign of Reagan's strength. He probably won so many voters who named the deficit as their number one concern because a few months ago, they had been principally concerned about unemployment - but not anymore. After all, the economy grew at 7.4% in 1984 and unemployment was falling quickly by Election Day. The bigger shock would have been if people had voted Reagan out despite the growth.

What does this suggest for President Obama? I think Ike and Reagan's presidencies indicate that he has a grace period. Early economic troubles did not gravely affect either man's approval ratings. But sooner or later, voters are going to expect some results. I don't know when that will be. But I do know that, if the economy isn't delivering by then, they'll blame President Obama, Teflon or not.

-Jay Cost