J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Obama is surrounded by former presidents in the Oval Office in 2009. Two of his predecessors — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — won two terms, while two others — George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — left office after just one.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
For President Obama, this is the Season of Doubt.
There is in the American air — some 13 months away from the 2012 election — a whiff of suggestion that Obama might not be re-elected. Or re-electable.
A recent poll reveals that most Americans — 55 percent — believe Obama will be a one-term president. On hearing the results, Obama told ABC News: "I'm used to being an underdog."
Another survey by CNN reveals that if the 2012 presidential election were to be held today, Obama would narrowly beat Republican hopefuls Ron Paul (by a mere 4 percentage points) and Rick Perry (by 5 points), and he would be neck and neck with Mitt Romney. And, according to Gallup's most recent weekly approval rating average, Obama's approval rating is around 41 percent today.
"Since the poll shows that voters tend to support candidates based more on how they 'feel' about them and less on whether they line up on the issues," write James Oliphant and Kim Geiger in the Los Angeles Times, "that's a worrisome trend for Obama."
Uh-oh. Underdog. Worrisome trend. Are the storm clouds of uncertainty gathering over the Obama presidency? Is the once-popular Illinois politician headed for defeat in 2012? Is the next "Change We Can Believe In" perhaps — what only a few months ago would have been unbelievable — a change of the guard? And is it really possible that the "Yes We Can" man can get not only panned, but canned?
Presidential Ups And Downs
What distinguishes a one-term president from a two-time victor? Approval ratings may not tell the whole story. Here are six presidents' ratings in the fall of their third year in office. George H.W. Bush had the highest rating, but he lost the election a year later. Ronald Reagan clocked in at just 45 percent but won re-election in a landslide.
A Short History Of Uncertainty
Not so fast. "Presidential approval fluctuates for all presidents," says Bert A. Rockman, a political science professor at Purdue University. "Mostly, approval reflects conditions. When things are going well and no scandals strike, presidents do well in the polls; when things are not going well or scandals strike, they tend to do less well."
Most every president has a low point during his first term when he seems vulnerable, if not downright un-re-electable. A crucial consideration is when that point arrives. Historically, it seems, the sooner a president craters, the better his chances of recovery. Looking backward:
For George W. Bush, his Season of Doubt began in the spring of 2003 — after the "Mission Accomplished" debacle on the USS Abraham Lincoln when he declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq. All of a sudden, the Democrats began to look pretty good.
Ronald E. Cohen of Gannett News Service observed in mid-July of 2003, that "sudden potholes in Bush's smooth re-election road give Democratic challengers some hope." Bush hit an approval-rating low of 46 percent in the spring of 2004 — down precipitously from his 90 percent approval rating just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — just weeks before the Democrats nominated John Kerry.
Still and all, Bush bottomed out early enough so that certain other factors, such as a strong Republican convention, a shrewd campaign strategy by strategist Karl Rove — especially a raft of referenda on gay marriage — and a weak campaign by Kerry, made even weaker by swift-boating critics, eventually propelled Bush to victory.
But the consistently weak approval number, which was still just a little over 50 percent in the fall of 2004 — late in the game — was portentous of problems ahead. Bush won all right, but barely — with the smallest popular vote margin (in percentage terms) of any re-elected president ever, and the smallest winning margin in the Electoral College for an incumbent since Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
For Bill Clinton, the trough came early — in 1993, his first year in office. He reached his rock-bottom rating of 37 percent in June. In the fall of 1994, he was again under 40 percent, just before the Republican Revolution swept through Congress in the midterm elections.
As the Chicago Tribune described it: "Few in the political cognoscenti gave him much of a chance. The Republican majority in Congress had all but taken over the reins of government. Clinton was frustrated and floundering due to his political standing and the increasing prospect that he could be another one-term president."
But in April 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton's approval numbers rebounded. As the Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives lost its luster, Clinton and the Democrats began looking more attractive. By November 1995, still a year away from re-election, he was again above 50 percent approval. And he won re-election easily.
George H.W. Bush, elected in 1988, looked strong after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and scared off most of his prospective opponents on the Democratic side. But more potent rivals — Pat Buchanan in the Republican Party and independent candidate Ross Perot — came out of right field. Because of those challenges and a weakened economy, Bush hit his low point — 29 percent — rather late, in the summer of 1992. He never completely recovered, and Clinton reaped the benefits.
Even Ronald Reagan experienced a temporary pit of popular disenchantment. Elected in 1980, his trench came early. He reached a low of 35 percent in the Gallup polls in January 1983 — with the economy still weak and a big field of Democrats running. In head-to-head surveys well into that year, Reagan was coming in behind Walter Mondale. But Reagan climbed back to over 50 percent approval by November 1983, a full year before re-election — just like Clinton. In Reagan's case, he continued strong as the economy improved and the Democrats squabbled among themselves. In the end, Reagan won 49 states in 1984.
'It Takes Someone To Beat Someone'
The key to success: An incumbent president doesn't want to be on the downside of approval ratings in the summer of the nominating conventions. Those who bottom out earlier in their first term — like Reagan and Clinton — fare much better in re-election bids than presidents who hit the skids later in the first term — like George H.W. Bush.
So what does all this portend for Obama? Obama's vulnerabilities, according to Purdue University's Bert A. Rockman, "are definitely real." The president's support base among Democrats remains strong, but weaker than in 2008.
All things being equal, Rockman says, Obama is in trouble. "However, much depends upon where things go from here. There is also more disapproval of Republicans than of Obama. And, finally, it cannot be said that the Republicans exactly have a stellar field."
He adds: "It takes someone to beat someone, and it remains to be seen as to whether the Republicans have the someone. It also remains to be seen whether voters have any more confidence in Republicans than they do in Obama."
In other words, the jury — and the electorate — is still out. Political observers will be scrutinizing Obama's approval ratings as nomination summer and the general election draw closer. If he can keep his numbers from falling too far and prevent any serious challengers' numbers from rising too high, he may be re-elected. And this Season of Doubt will be consigned to the history books.