Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama each made a policy decision that afflicted long-lasting damage to their popularity. Bill Clinton did manage to recover from his self-inflicted wound and is remembered as a successful president, but Ronald Reagan is the only president since John F. Kennedy who neither pushed nor enacted a policy that offended large numbers of Americans. I would argue that his long-lasting glow is due to his extraordinary unwillingness to defy the will of the majority. There is a lot that presidents can’t control, so you would think they would be careful about the one thing that is entirely up to them, but experience shows that they usually aren’t.
Please note that I am not arguing for or against the merits of the political decisions that hurt presidents. In fact, I agree with most of them. Many of them are quietly fading into history, but they all had political ramifications that shaped elections and our country.
I start with Gerald Ford for the totally logical reason that he is the first president I remember, sort of. In reality, I just have a dim memory of the election of 1976. Also, Nixon and Johnson were such complicated presidents that I don’t dare discuss them without having some sort of personal memory of events. So, I begin with Ford.
Ford was untouched by the separate scandals that had brought down Richard Nixon and the former Vice President Spiro Agnew. Gerald Ford was clean. He was fresh. He had been a college football star. He began his administration in 1974 with an approval rating over 70%, the highest a US president had enjoyed at any moment since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was still the beneficiary of American sympathy and grief after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
And then he pardoned Nixon. Ford’s popularity immediately tumbled to 50%, continued downward and never recovered. It surpassed 50% a few times, but only briefly and by a small amount. He lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, who had been the governor of Georgia (but was still an outsider in Washington), owned a peanut farm, taught Sunday School, talked about being born again, and whose economically and culturally disadvantaged brother took advantage of his brother’s success by marketing Billy Beer. In short, he was change Americans could believe in.
Like Ford, Carter began his presidency on a high note. His approval rating was over 60% for much of 1977, even briefly surpassing 70%. Then he signed the Panama Canal Treaty in September of 1977, which coincided with a drop in his approval. It was ratified the following April, when his approval dropped further. The treaty finished a process that had started in 1964, handing Panama control over a small strip of land that inconveniently divided their country in two, but happened to be vital to American economic interests.
After losing the Vietnam War, Americans were looking for a victory, but they only found it in popular culture. The 12 months after Carter’s election gave us not only Rocky and Star Wars, but Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Even Saturday Night Fever, released only 14 months after the election, can be seen as part of the “victory against all odds” trend. The Panama Canal treaty was not the victory Americans were craving and they wouldn’t soon forgive him for it.
To be fair, Carter’s presidency was dragged down by other things. The end of his presidency was a forgettable period when inflation was over 12% and unemployment was over 7%. There was his description of the country as suffering from a national “malaise,” which was not welcomed by the people who had cheered Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker and were now standing in line for Rocky II and The Empire Strikes Back. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, complete with an embarrassing, failed rescue attempt and a nightly count on the evening news of the number of days it had been since Americans were taken hostage. Even so, “He gave away the canal!” was a significant factor in his unpopularity and his subsequent loss in 1980 to the optimistic, tough-talking, former Hollywood star turned conservative governor of sunny California.
It is often forgotten that Ronald Reagan did not start out his presidency with high approval ratings. He started out just over 50%. It surged in the first few months of his presidency, helped by the return of the hostages from Iran and sympathy for an attempt on his life, after which he told his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
It is difficult to find serious policy missteps in Reagan’s presidency. The only time he came close to defying majority opinion was when he signed into law a 5 cent increase in the gas tax (yes, that Ronald Reagan), but that sin was quickly forgotten when gas prices turned out to be the gift that kept on giving and declined steadily over the next few years.
In Reagan’s first term, his approval rating was only dragged down by a punishing economy. The unemployment rate stayed above 8% for all of 1982 and 1983, while Reagan’s popularity stayed below 50% until the boom began. For the first time in 16 years, Americans experienced a combination of rapid growth and low inflation. The “malaise” of the 70’s was officially over and the “era of greed” had begun.
Reagan was called “The Great Communicator,” but a less-flattering nickname was “The Teflon President,” assigned to him by a press corps that could not comprehend his popularity. This last description was inaccurate, however, because the Iran-Contra scandal seriously harmed his approval ratings. They hovered around 50% until the end of his presidency, when presidents start their transition from divisive political symbols back to human beings and their popularity increases.
Reagan’s enduring popularity is attributed to his sunny disposition, his conservative philosophy and the economic boom of the 1980’s. It is rarely, if ever, attributed to an acute political instinct that allowed him to reflect the will of the American public, even though that is exactly what he did. If presidents are judged by their ability to do the will of the people, Ronald Reagan was one of the best we’ve ever had.
George H. W. Bush
Like Ronald Reagan before him, George H. W. Bush started his administration with the approval of little more than half of the American public, but quickly gained their confidence. He was classy and dignified and generally struck a moderate ground in politics. What had seemed like bitter partisan fights in the Reagan era declined under Bush. The country was getting similar results, but with less fighting. Not only that, but the Cold War was coming to a close. The Berlin Wall fell. Bush basked in the glow.
Then he agreed to raise taxes. This is the most-remembered policy reversal in modern American politics. When he accepted the Republican nomination, he proclaimed that the Democrats would push him again and again, but he would tell them “Read my lips, no new taxes!” As almost American knows who was alive at the time or follows politics now, Democrats pushed him to accept a tax increase in 1990, just like he’d predicted, and he agreed to it, just like he’d sworn he wouldn’t.
His approval ratings dropped into the 50’s. Keep in mind, his lowest approval rating in 1990 and most of 1991 was still a clear majority and a number many presidents would envy. During this period Bush Sr. was helped by a healthy economy, the end of the Cold War and the easy success of the Gulf War.
His policy reversal became more significant when the economy worsened and Americans woke up to the fact that the boom times wouldn’t last forever. As the recession deepened even his classiness became a negative, when Democrats successfully associated it with his social class and called him out of touch (which is a euphemism for spoiled rich boy). The end result was that Bush Sr. lost the election to the “I feel your pain,” saxophone-playing, sure I’ll tell you whether I wear boxers or briefs, baby-boomer, moderate governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton is the only president during this time period to successfully come back from a major political misstep. His middling popularity took a small hit when he assigned Hillary the task of reforming the health care system, which was the euphemism the press used for enacting universal health care (they didn’t fool anyone). The idea that an unelected spouse was going to skirt nepotism rules and lead a private committee to plan a government intrusion into a personal area of everyone’s life was only reason the arrangement was unpopular, but it was the biggest one.
Fortunately for politicians, the American public doesn’t take presidential proposals too seriously until they reach Congress and “health care reform” didn’t hurt him much initially. The thing that really damaged his popularity in his first year was Waco, where 75 people died after federal officers forcefully entered a religious compound they had surrounded for 51 days. While those lives were lost forever, Clinton’s popularity soon recovered. The public placed the blame on his Attorney General, Janet Reno, the first woman in that position and one who is still called overly aggressive.
Once Bill Clinton started pushing for concrete health care reform, his approval ratings gradually declined until they reached Waco levels in August of 1994, when he abandoned the project. Then from the middle of 1994 to his State of the Union speech in 1996, his popularity rarely breached 50%. That 1996 speech was when he declared “The era of big government is over.”
Some people might take his statement as a declaration of surrender, while others might see in it a sign of sincere repentance for his political sins. Either way, his popularity never dropped below 50% again. He was helped by a booming economy, but he was still more popular than Reagan was in 1987 or 1988, when the economy was doing quite well. Even with his widely-reported scandals his popularity hovered around 60% during his entire second term. After 1995, the man who was said to govern with his finger to the wind and an eye on the polls lived up to his reputation, and his popularity reflected it.
George W. Bush
George W. Bush is still unpopular. His biggest mistake is not forgotten. Still, one of his two major mistakes is rarely mentioned. It is lost in the effects of his attempt to remake the Middle East by force and a recession that has not totally receded from our daily experience.
George W. Bush started out like Bill Clinton, but without Waco or a health care reform debacle. He might have remained moderately popular if it had not been for 9/11. The peak of his popularity as he handled that crisis has only been reached by one other president after World War II, by a man who happened to be his father.
His popularity slowly returned to its natural level during 2002, then was boosted again for a brief period when he went to war against Saddam Hussein. Then, as his popularity again settled at an expected level, questions were asked about the intelligence that was used to justify the war. George Tenet, the CIA director, had to publicly admit that there was never any good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa. Then there was the ongoing, fruitless search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was called off in October of 2003. From then until after his reelection, Bush was liked by only a slight majority of Americans.
In 2004, George W. Bush became the first president since his father in 1988 to win an election with more than 50% of the vote. That is, he received 50.7% of the vote. Still, he had the confirmed support of a majority of Americans. In spite of his narrow victory, he declared that he had earned some political capital and that he intended to spend it.
And spend it he did, as if it was burning a hole in his pocket. He immediately proposed privatizing Social Security, once known as the third rail of American politics: touch it and you die. The result was predictable to everyone, or at least it should have been. The effort went nowhere and Bush would never have the support of a majority of Americans again. Unfortunately, the political effects of his proposal were buried under the effects of the Iraq War and the terrifying economic plunge of 2008. His mistake probably helped Democrats take over Congress in 2006, but the only clear evidence of its effect is that it went nowhere. As a result, people who would like to repeat the effort can point to the Iraq War to explain away the coincidental drop in his popularity and the subsequent Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.
Barack Obama came into office with approval ratings not seen for a new president since Jimmy Carter. Then, like Bill Clinton, he turned to universal health care. Unlike Clinton, he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Even more unlike Bill Clinton, he faced a Republican Party that decided to deny him any victory and believed that if they could defeat him on health care reform he would be powerless thereafter. This raised the stakes of the battle. The result was that he put everything he had into the fight for universal health care and he pushed until it was passed in March of 2010.
His popularity had taken an immediate hit after House Democrats revealed their health care plan in July of 2009, dropping from about 60% then to 50% by the end of August. He would experience some ups and downs after that, but until the last months of his presidency his approval was almost always between 40% and 50%. It only broke the 50% level around the 2012 election, simply because partisanship is high around elections.
Barack Obama committed the cardinal sin of politics. Not only did he do something controversial, but it was something that would affect the lives of everyone, all the time. Of course, that last part was kind of the point, in a positive way, but not everyone welcomed it.
Ronald Reagan infuriated liberals. He did some things that drove Democrats mad. He used them as a political foil and as scapegoats, but he was always careful not to offend too many people. Barack Obama was willing to offend people to get something done and he paid the price. Whether or not it was worth it will be decided in the future.
Donald Trump is not yet president, but signs are not encouraging. He is the least-popular new president in memory, so he is starting from a low level. Other presidents have won over the public after their election, but Donald Trump does not show any inclination to do that. His campaign theme song was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” after all, which is kind of the opposite of what Reagan preached.
His cabinet seems to be tilted strongly to the right, much more than voters expected. During the campaign he was accused of not being conservative. Even some conservatives voted for him despite believing he was moderate, and some even accused him of being a closet Democrat. The hard-right cabinet appointees do not bode well for his popularity.
Because of Barack Obama’s low but steady levels of popularity and the fact that he was still reelected, commentators have accepted that as a new normal, as nothing more than a reflection of the partisanship of the times. They say that any Democrat will get the support of Democrats and the opposition of Republicans, and vice versa. In that context, Trump’s approval levels don’t seem out of the ordinary.
I argue that Barack Obama’s low popularity did not come from partisanship, but from his decision to spend his political capital by pushing the Affordable Care Act. I say he had nothing left after that. I say the floor in his popularity came from his strong likeability and a (slowly) growing economy.
Barack Obama only won 52.9% of the vote in 2008, which was just 1.2% more than George W. Bush won in 2004. That this is still the strongest victory for an American president since 1988 is a reflection of the state of the parties, not the state of the republic. I believe it is a mistake to put a theoretical ceiling and floor on Trump’s popularity, as if Barack Obama’s narrow range of popularity was a sign of the times and had nothing to do with his policy decisions.
Donald Trump, who won with 46% of the national vote and a slight plurality in the states that mattered, has less political capital than George W. Bush in 2004. There are already calls for investigating his finances, not to mention the election itself, and we can see how scandal could drag down even Ronald Reagan, the political equivalent of a saint. In spite of this reality, there is talk once again of reforming Social Security, the very thing that George W. Bush could not manage after his larger victory.
If Trump decides to pursue this path or similar ones, or if he decides to cooperate with Paul Ryan in pursuing them, he will not find the result to his liking. He will not win. He will not be liked. His party will do worse than expected in 2018 and 2020. Americans will find themselves with yet another weak president who is ignored or dismissed by Congress and finds himself tempted to use executive orders to get something done.
The best thing Donald Trump could do would be to steer far away from unpopular proposals. Even a proposal that has 50% approval is risky. If he were wise, he wouldn’t spend his meager political capital on anything that has less than 60% support and he wouldn’t speak a harsh word about proposed legislation that has majority support. The last thing he would want to do would be to push for controversial or unpopular legislation. People will forgive almost anything else in their president, but not that.
The following websites were used significantly in the preparation of this post and are recommended by the author as data sources or historical information: