Presidential popularity begs a lot of questions. The most important question at election time is what candidate gets the most Electoral College votes, making the popular vote only interesting. Presidential approval begins with inauguration day and can be less than 50 percent to start, as with the administrations of Kennedy, Carter and “W” Bush. Between 1961 and 2001, voters changed their opinions widely about the eight presidents who occupied the White House. They disapproved of all of the presidents and demonstrated that economics drives public opinion more than current events.
Gallup has been tracking presidential job approval since Harry Truman took office in 1945. The Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center shows President Obama with an all-time high of 69 percent, when he took office in January 2009, and a to-date low of 40 percent recorded at the end of July. He is about two months shy of being in office 1000 days and his average approval is 50 percent. Regardless of how one interprets the data, one thing is abundantly clear: an awful lot of people disapprove of a president most of the time. Who is in office does not really matter.
Imagine becoming president with barely half of the vote by any measure. In 1960, Democratic Sen. John Kennedy became president by defeating Vice President Richard Nixon with a 0.1 percent margin of the popular vote, 49.7 percent to 49.6 percent. Since JFK’s overall approval is 70.1 percent, he is assumed to have been well approved by Americans. That was not the case at the time. People who did not like him personally despised him. In the South for example, I remember seeing Ku Klux Klan bonfires burning to celebrate his assassination because Kennedy was a Catholic and a pro-Civil Rights president.
JFK also sent the first US troops to a country few people had ever heard of: Vietnam. During his 1036 days in office, JFK’s budgets ran deficits to finance his New Frontier programs. His approval ratings scored a high of 83 percent and a low of 56 percent. They had been trending down when he was murdered.
JFK’s Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and then won the 1964 election in a landslide, defeating Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. LBJ also won the popular vote by a margin of 61.1 percent to 38.5 percent. Johnson’s overall 55.1 percent approval rating ranged from a high of 79 percent to a low of 35 percent. He used his popularity when he had it, too. His administration submitted 87 bills to the 89th Congress and LBJ signed 84 of them into law.
”This country,” LBJ said, ”is rich enough to do anything it has the guts to do and the vision to do and the will to do.” His Great Society is still with us ”in Medicare and Medicaid, in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the rivers and lakes we swim in; in the colleges our students attend; in the medical miracles from the National Institutes of Health; in mass transportation and equal opportunity,” as former Johnson advisor Joseph A. Califano has stated. LBJ also expanded costly US involvement in the Vietnam War. With his approval ratings in decline, Johnson did not run for reelection.
As a private citizen, former Republican Vice President Richard Nixon won his second campaign for president in 1968 defeating two other candidates: LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace, who ran as an Independent. Wallace captured 13.5 percent of the popular vote, leaving a 0.7 percent margin between Nixon and Humphrey, 43.4 percent to 42.7 percent. Although Nixon won reelection in a 1972 landslide victory and 60.7 percent of the popular vote, he resigned the presidency under the threat of impeachment and saw his approval numbers fall from a high of 67 percent to a low of 24 percent. Nixon had an overall term and a half approval rating of 49 percent.
Nixon inherited a weak economy from the Johnson administration but delivered a balanced budget in 1969. However, inflation, rising energy costs and high unemployment troubled Nixon’s administration. Despite wage and price controls and other measures that did not work, Nixon’s budget plans included using large deficits to marginally improve the economy. Although Nixon called upon “the great silent majority” for support, continued expansion of the Vietnam War, including bombing Cambodia, and the costs of War in addition to the Watergate scandal further degraded his approval numbers.
After Nixon’s resignation, Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency and served its remaining 845 days only to lose his subsequent election bid in 1976. During his time in the White House, Ford gave Nixon a presidential pardon and concluded US involvement in the Vietnam War. His overall approval rating scored 47.2 percent for the time of American discouragement with politics that followed the highly publicized Watergate hearings that contributed to Ford’s becoming president. Ford’s approval ranged from a high of 71 percent to a low of 37 percent. Despite the Ford Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program, 7 percent inflation and growing unemployment continued to weaken the economy that had slipped into recession and further eroded his approval numbers.
The next presidential race was so close, many voters stayed up until the early morning hours to see Georgia’s Democratic Governor Jimmy Carter win the 1976 election. A US Naval Academy graduate and peanut farmer, Carter won the election with a less than 2 percent popular vote margin: 50.1 percent to 48 percent. Elected by just half of the voters like Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter only earned an overall approval rating of 45.5 percent that ranged from a high of 75 percent to a low of 28 percent. The federal government was in deficit every year of the Carter presidency. Slow recovery from the ’73-‘75 recession, fuel shortages, double-digit inflation and 9 percent unemployment plagued the Carter administration which lasted one term only. The American hostage situation in Iran exacerbated disapproval of Carter.
The country turned to a former Hollywood actor and spokesperson in the 1980 election of California Republican Governor Ronald Reagan, who won with 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent and Independent Congressman John Anderson’s 6.6 percent protest vote. Reagan got his landslide reelection four years later, defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale by 58.8 percent to 40.6 percent. While Reagan’s overall approval rating is 52.8 percent, it ranged from a high of 68 percent to a low of 38 percent.
Reagan survived an assassination attempt and took credit for the end of Communism with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although he railed against the debt ceiling, it was raised 17 times during his eight year administration. His supply side Reaganomics, which his critics called “voodoo economics,” created more new debt than the combined deficits of all previous presidents. While Reagan said he was committed to reducing government spending, it rose by $321 billion during his presidency, to more than a trillion dollars. He also raised taxes seven times. Only his age and the 22nd Amendment prevented Reagan from running for a third term.
Instead, with a revenue improved economy, the enormous popularity of Ronald Reagan and relative world peace, Vice President George H. W. Bush won the presidency by defeating Massachusetts Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis by a popular vote margin of 53.4 percent to 45.7 percent. Best known for his famous pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” a recession began. Rising deficits, a declining economy plus a growth in mandatory spending began to further increase the federal deficit. Bush’s approval ratings ranged from a high of 89 percent to a low of 29 percent.
By 1990 the deficit had grown to three times its size in 1980. The federal government shut down for three days and the Democratic majority in Congress eventually forced Bush to raise tax revenues. But events of the Gulf War pushed economic issues out of the news and Bush ended up with an overall approval rating of 60.9 percent for his term in office, second only to Kennedy.
After three Republican presidential terms and the economy again in recession, two candidates ran against President Bush in the 1992 election: Arkansas Democratic Governor Bill Clinton and Independent businessman Ross Perot. Bush’s 89 percent approval ratings following the Persian Gulf War made him look like a certain winner, but the economy trumped his approval ratings at the ballot box. Clinton prevailed with 43 percent of the popular vote to Bush’s 37.5 percent and Perot’s 18.9 percent. Ross Perot capitalized on the economic woe in his 1992 campaign and ran again in 1996. He siphoned an 8.4 percent popular vote as incumbent President Clinton defeated Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole 49.2 percent to 40.7 percent.
The Congressional Budget Office reported a budget surplus between the years 1998 and 2000, the longest economic expansion period in US history. Only the second president to be impeached by the House, the Senate failed to muster the constitutional two-thirds majority requirement to convict and remove an officeholder. Despite the impeachment and another government shutdown, Clinton left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating of any US president since World War II at 60.6 percent. His highest approval rating scored 73 percent and his lowest recorded 37 percent.
Economy tends to trump political events no matter how much of a splash those events create. Kennedy’s high rating occurred because he died in office before his first term ended. Reagan’s approval rating of 52.8 percent falls behind the 55.1 percent approval rating of LBJ and Bill Clinton, who tie for 3rd place. George H.W. Bush comes in second to JFK at 60.9 percent. Those are the numbers.
Here are some more. Take a look at the disapproval ratings for the eight presidents I’ve discussed. Keep them in mind the next time approval ratings are brought up as some kind of data being foisted off as something significant.
- John Kennedy: 56
- Lyndon Johnson: 35
- Richard Nixon: 24
- Gerald Ford: 37
- Jimmy Carter: 28
- Ronald Reagan: 38
- George H.W. Bush: 29
- Bill Clinton: 37
The public changes its mind with regularity and presidents are just not that popular. Why anyone would want such a job is another question.