by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center
Special to the New York Times
Despite a long, hard-fought election campaign, the public rallies to a new chief executive who has come to office riding a tide of national discontent and strong disapproval of his predecessor. His approval ratings remain high even as he proposes a dramatic new approach to the role of government that has many doubters. Surveys find that Americans think the president’s plan to rescue the nation’s troubled economy will work, yet many are fearful of key provisions. Indeed, the polls find the president more personally popular than his programs. Further, a wide partisan gap exists in attitudes toward the nation’s new leader.
The new president described above is, of course, Barack Obama — but, to a startling degree, it is also Ronald Reagan. A close look at Gallup’s polling of reactions to Reagan’s first few months in office provides striking parallels with what Pew Research Center polls now find about opinions of Obama. And a consideration of the Reagan experience may well give some clues as to what lies ahead for the 44th president.
The public’s bottom lines on Presidents Reagan and Obama early in their presidencies have so far been quite comparable: 60% and 59% of the public approved of the new presidents in mid-March, respectively. (Going into April, the lines diverge as a sympathetic public response to the March 31 attempt on Reagan’s life boosted his numbers, at least for a short period.)
The parallels in the two presidents’ ratings go beyond overall results. Both were extremely popular among members of their own party, but each set off alarm bells among the opposition. Some 87% of Republicans approved of Reagan, while 88% of Democrats approve of Barack Obama. But both presidents evoked less positive opinion from the opposition than had their predecessor. Only 41% of Democrats approved of Reagan whereas 56% of Republicans had approved of Jimmy Carter in March 1977. President Obama scores only a 27% rating among Republicans, significantly lower than George W. Bush’s 36% approval score among Democrats in March 2001.
No small part of the polarized reaction to both new presidents is that each made proposals that went to the core precepts about government held by the two political parties. Reagan’s expressed desire to shrink government was as much an anathema to Democrats as Obama’s proposals to increase the size and influence of government are to Republicans.
So far, concern over Obama’s policies has not translated into a loss of public support; nor did it for Ronald Reagan through much of 1981. But the public’s patience with Reagan was relatively short lived.