In The New Republic, John Judis writes:
Almost four months after his inauguration, President Barack Obama is still riding high in the polls. According to Gallup, 66 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing. But I expect that Obama’s popularity will begin to fall, even plummet, as the leaves turn brown. That’s not to say he is doing a bad job, but that the tasks he faces in fixing the economy remain daunting, and beyond resolution in his first year or, perhaps, even first term.
History suggests that Judis is right about the general trajectory of the president’s popularity. Political scientists speak of the “decay curve,” the tendency of presidential approval ratings to decline after the first few months of a new administration. The reason for the decay is straightforward: the more decisions that a president makes, the more chances there are of alienating people.
For instance, RN’s first Gallup numbers in 1969 were 59 percent approve, 5 percent disapprove. (That is not a typo: only five percent disapproved of his performance during his first days in office.) By late June of 1971, the approve/disapprove ratio was a much closer 48-39 percent.
Economic conditions have a great deal to do with approval ratings. In good times, they tend to stay high. The boom of the 1990s buoyed Clinton’s numbers and helped him survive impeachment. In bad times, presidential popularity plummets. The recession of Ronald Reagan’s early presidency drove his approve/disapprove ratio to a dismal 35-56 percent in January 1983.
Obama still enjoys the benefit of the doubt and can still blame the current economic turmoil on his predecessor. But as Judis suggests, the public will eventually hold him accountable for the results of his policies. In that respect, he might ponder what RN wrote about his own bold experiment with big-government economics:
What did America reap from its brief fling with economic controls? The August 15, 1971 decision to impose them was politically necessary and immensely popular in the short run. But in the long run I believe that it was wrong. The piper must always be paid, and there was an unquestionably high price for tampering with the orthodox economic mechanisms.