It is worth remembering that President Reagan was not always held in such high esteem by the American public, or even by his own party. Even at a time when America was much less polarized, Reagan’s approval rating was often below 50% and even dipped below 40% for a short period. Then, in his final year of office, the American public began to give the President higher marks, and Reagan ended his second term with over 60% of Americans approving as his job as President, about 10% higher than President H. W. Bush’s approval during his first days in office.
2016 is shaping up to look a lot like 1988. President Obama’s approval rating has gradually increased since the campaign seriously got underway. In November, only 42.9% of Americans approved of the President’s handling of his job, and his net approval was -8.7%. Now, his job approval stands at about 49%, with his net favorability at +2.5%. For reference, at this point in Reagan’s Presidency, Reagan was also at 49%.
So what accounts for the rise in Obama’s popularity over the past six months? Two things: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While Hillary Clinton has always been seen as the likely Democratic nominee, the same cannot be said for Mr. Trump. In November of 2015, few expected Donald Trump to wind up becoming the Republican nominee for President. Most political pros and pundits expected him to get no more than 25-30% of the vote and for one of the more mainstream Republican candidates to end up consolidating support against him.
However, as Americans have become more and more accustomed to believing Trump will in fact be the nominee, their approval for the President has spiked. True, correlation should never be confused for causation, but there is little evidence that anything else can account for Obama’s current bounce in the polls.
Besides Trump and Clinton’s overall unfavorability with the public, there are two main things that have probably helped Obama’s image among his fellow Americans. First, instead of running away from the President’s legacy, as Al Gore and John McCain did in 2000 and 2008, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders have largely embraced the President. This is likely due to the fact that the President is enormously popular with the Democratic base, i.e. those who actually turn out in primary elections. A Gallop poll conducted in March of this year showed that 82% of Democrats approved of his job as President. Further, those who identified as ‘liberal Democrats’ gave the President a 89% approval rating.
In debate after debate, the two Democratic rivals have attempted to court these voters by praising the President as well as his many accomplishments. Even as Bernie Sanders has sought to run to the left of both Clinton and Obama, he has still only offered mild criticism of the President, usually followed up with a line about how Obama has done as much as he could given the Republican opposition to him.
The second thing that has helped the President is the messy Republican primary. For the first few months of the primary, the GOP candidates were attacking the President and his policies non-stop. However, as the primary got closer to the first voting states, Republicans (most notably Donald Trump) have resorted to attacking each other while ignoring the sitting Democratic President.
Now, it is apparent to the voters that they will have a choice in November between two candidates with record breaking favorability numbers and who are both less popular than President Obama. Trump’s favorability rating stands at about 36% and Clinton’s is only marginally better at 42.5%. Their unfavorability ratings are 60% and 54%, respectively. Never before have the two nominees for President been so universally disliked.
With a likely extremely negative campaign looming and eight more months of Obama’s Presidency, the American public just may be wishing that they could instead vote for him for a third term. This is a recipe for President Obama’s popularity to continue to rise, just as Ronald Reagan’s did in 1988.