When and how badly will scandals hurt Obama’s approval ratings?
A funny thing about problems in the executive branch of the federal government — some of which are actual scandals — is that they don’t always badly hurt a president’s approval rating among the American populace.
And in some cases, the dip in a president’s popularity arising from scandal is relatively short-lived.
Two examples are instructive in this regard.
When the arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra scandal emerged in late 1986, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating in the Gallup poll quickly plummeted from 63 percent to 47 percent and stayed relatively low throughout 1987. But his numbers jumped back to the upper 50s and lower 60s in the following year.
The impact of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal was even more remarkable. On the very same day that Clinton was impeached by the Republican U.S. House, his job-approval rating in the Gallup poll was 73 percent, the highest of his presidency and higher than Reagan ever got.
And now there’s the situation facing Barack Obama with regard to his handling of the Benghazi tragedy and the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service. At this writing on Wednesday morning, the Gallup and Rasmussen three-day tracking polls show no significant decline in Obama’s approval rating. Polls conducted Saturday through Monday still show more approval than disapproval of the president’s job performance.
Widely-respected political analyst Charlie Cook had a GOOD COLUMN on this matter yesterday:
Perhaps the best way to determine whether either (or both) of these stories [Benghazi and the IRS] is starting to resonate with the American people is to simply watch Obama’s daily and weekly Gallup job-approval ratings. After all, this is the first presidency that will be covered from start to finish with daily public-opinion samplings. Since the beginning of March, the president’s approval ratings each week have been between 47 and 51 percent, and between 48 and 50 percent for all but two weeks. For the week of May 6-12, with the last interviewing being conducted Sunday night, Obama’s approval rating was at 49 percent, down a point from the previous week, and his disapproval was at 44 percent, the same as the week before.
According to the Gallup Organization, the average job-approval rating for presidents in their 18th quarter in office, covering the post-World War II period, was 51.3 percent. That’s a little over a point higher than where Obama is right now. Bill Clinton had the highest job-approval rating at this point in his presidency over the past 50 years, with 57 percent. Ronald Reagan was at 55 percent, George W. Bush at 46 percent, and Richard Nixon at 45 percent. Nixon had been above 50 percent until early April, and then he began his gradual decline, never to recover…
The most objective way to ascertain whether either or both of these stories have “legs” and are beginning to get traction with the public is to watch every Monday afternoon for the release of the Gallup approval rating for the previous week, ending the night before. Although you can look at the Gallup three-day moving average, those have a smaller sample size than the full week of interviewing and tend to be somewhat volatile. As long as Obama’s job approval remains in that 47-to-51-percent range, particularly between 48 and 50 percent, it’s safe to say that neither story is hurting him significantly, at least with the public. If you are going to look at other polls, take a gander at that poll’s “trading range” for Obama over March and April, and see whether it drops below that range. Each pollster’s methodology is a bit different, and each has its own idiosyncrasies, making comparisons between polls a little more iffy. It’s always better to compare each poll with previous numbers from that specific pollster.
Other than the cost in terms of job-approval ratings, the other price paid by such stories is that it consumes the time and attention of key administration members, distracting them from their other objectives. This is a subtle but important factor, as second-term presidencies have a general tendency to run out of gas, lose energy, and show a dwindling supply of fresh ideas, which all contribute to the “time-for-a-change” dynamic that usually starts to build in second presidential terms.