For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades. The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president — 88% job approval among Democrats — and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27%).
By comparison, there was a somewhat smaller 51-point partisan gap in views of George W. Bush’s job performance in April 2001, a few months into his first term. At that time, Republican enthusiasm for Bush was comparable to how Democrats feel about Obama today, but there was substantially less criticism from members of the opposition party. Among Democrats, 36% approved of Bush’s job performance in April 2001; that compares with a 27% job approval rating for Obama among Republicans today.
The partisan gap in Bill Clinton’s early days was also substantially smaller than what Obama faces, largely because Democrats were less enthusiastic about Clinton. In early April 1993, 71% of Democrats approved of Clinton’s job performance, which is 17 points lower than Obama’s current job approval among Democrats. Republican ratings of Clinton at that point (26%) are comparable to their current ratings of Obama today (27%).
The growing partisan divide in presidential approval ratings is part of a long-term trend. Going back in time, partisanship was far less evident in the early job approval ratings for both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. In fact, a majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Carter’s job performance in late March 1977, and a majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Nixon’s performance at a comparable point in his first term.