by Andrew Kohut, President, Jodie T. Allen, Senior Editor and Richard C. Auxier, Pew Research Center
As the Obama administration redoubles its effort to communicate its concerns about unemployment in the face of sagging approval ratings, a look at the connection between the rise and fall of joblessness and the political fortunes of past presidents in the modern era is instructive. Recent history shows that the public response to all presidents has been shaped to some degree by rising or falling unemployment. However, only Ronald Reagan’s ratings in his first term have borne as close a connection as have Obama’s to changes in the unemployment rate.
In fact, the relationship between unemployment and presidential approval varies from crystal clear to murky. Indeed since 1981 there have been a number of times when the ties between changes in joblessness rates and public judgments of the president have been weak or even indiscernible. But the link is strongest when unemployment rises precipitously. And it weakens, or even disappears entirely, when other concerns — such as national security — become dominant public issues.
The correlation coefficients shown in the accompanying table measure the degree to which unemployment and presidential approval and disapproval ratings varied together over the past 30 years (coefficient of 1 or -1 indicating a total positive or negative correspondence between two variables, a zero coefficient indicating no relationship). The data reveal an extremely high correlation between Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings and unemployment rates during his first term — approval falling and disapproval rising as joblessness rose — but not during his second term. The relationships also hold for George H.W. Bush, although not nearly as strongly as for Reagan in his first term.
For both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, however, other factors clearly dominate and the correlation between unemployment and political support is weak or even non-existent. Thus far, Obama’s experience looks quite similar to Reagan’s in his first term in office, not surprising as both saw unemployment rise to double digits on their watch.
But a closer look at the trajectory of both unemployment and job approval ratings over the course of a presidential term does reveal a number of surprises in recent years.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the rise and fall of the unemployment rate more than any other factor shaped general public reaction to Reagan in his first term. As unemployment rose from 7.5 % at the start of 1981 to more than 8.6% by January 1982, his job disapproval rating rose from 18% to 40% over this period.
By the end of 1982, unemployment stood at nearly 11% and 50% of the public was telling Gallup that it disapproved of how the president was handling his job. Fortunately for Reagan, 1983 saw unemployment begin to decline. By year’s end, his approval scores began to recover, setting the stage for his successful run for reelection in 1984.
Throughout Reagan’s second term, unemployment rates continued to decline, falling below 6% by September 1987. However, Reagan did not reap the political benefit of higher approval ratings. Opinion of the president fell sharply in December 1986 in response to the Iran-Contra scandal, and the correspondence between views of Reagan job performance and the unemployment rate all but disappeared.
George H. W. Bush
Unemployment rose appreciably over the course of the first President Bush’s second year in office — from 5.4% in January 1990 to 6.3% by the end of the year. But the lead up to the invasion of Iraq produced a typical rally around the president in times of foreign crisis that kept Bush’s approval ratings quite healthy. America’s quick and relatively painless Gulf War victory sent his approval scores to record highs in the first quarter of 1991 obviating the political impact of a steady rise in unemployment … but not for long. Over the course of the remainder of the year, Bush’s approval rating tumbled, falling from a high of 86% in March to 50% in December. Over that period, the unemployment rate rose from 6.4% to 7.3%.
Unemployment remained high in 1992, but the president’s ratings fell even more sharply over the course of this election year. Bush was seen by the public to be out of touch with financially struggling Americans, and blamed by a majority of Americans for not trying hard enough to fix the economy.
For much of Clinton’s first term, unemployment rates and public judgments of the president were not in close correspondence. Unemployment declined from above 7% at the time he took office to 5.5% by the end of 1994. However, Clinton’s ratings were quite mixed for much of this time reflecting political difficulties (the collapse of health care reform, and bitter fights over his crime bill and economic packages), as well as controversies over his past personal and financial involvements. However, Clinton’s ratings began to improve in the fall of 1995 as a result of a successful showdown with Newt Gingrich over a shutdown of the federal government. Unemployment remained low in 1996, and Clinton’s ratings rose.
The importance of the unemployment rate to Clinton’s approval ratings in his second term can be inferred from the fact that neither varied very much: Unemployment remained low and Clinton’s approval scores remained high — this last despite the extraordinary Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment.
George W. Bush
Like his father’s experience in his first term in office, George W. Bush’s ratings were driven largely by the public’s response to national security concerns. In the end, however, a spike in unemployment contributed to Bush’s leaving office with one of the lowest approval scores of the modern era. When Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, unemployment stood at 4.2%. The rate rose markedly following the Sept. 11 attacks, peaking at 6.3% in June 2003, not beginning a gradual decline until late that year. Nonetheless, Bush’s ratings remained high throughout as the public rallied behind the president, first in response to the attacks, and subsequently during the early stages of the Iraq war.
In his second term, unemployment declined at first, but Bush’s ratings plummeted as the public grew disillusioned with the war in Iraq and criticism of the president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and a variety of other matters took a toll on the president’s ratings. When unemployment soared in 2008, Bush’s already low ratings fell even lower.
When Barack Obama took office, 7.6% of Americans were unemployed (nearly identical to the unemployment rate Reagan inherited some 30 years earlier). As with Reagan, a rising joblessness appears to have taken a substantial toll on the president’s job approval ratings. From a post-inauguration high of 64%, Obama’s approval rating fell to roughly 50% by the end of the year as unemployment rose to 10.0%.
As the past 30 years have shown, shifts in the public’s judgments about presidential performance are not always the product of rising or falling unemployment rates; other factors can intervene. However, there is nothing now on the horizon that seems likely to diminish the impact that unemployment is having on views of Obama. His situation continues to parallel Reagan’s, whose ratings recovered only when jobless rates began to decline.
This is not to suggest that no matter what the president does, it will have little impact on public opinion unless it moves the unemployment numbers. Yes, the public’s bottom line on the Obama presidency is likely be driven by economic trends, but other factors may well influence personal confidence in the president and his administration. This, in turn, can influence how quickly and decisively public optimism returns if and when the economic outlook improves — as well as shape the level of political backlash the president experiences while the economy remains in the dumps.