Congratulations, Jimmy Carter! You're Not the Most Unpopular President Any More!


An important milestone has been reported by the Gallup polling organization, via Paul Bedard of U.S. News:

President Obama’s slow ride down Gallup’s daily presidential job approval index has finally passed below Jimmy Carter, earning Obama the worst job approval rating of any president at this stage of his term in modern political history.

Since March, Obama’s job approval rating has hovered above Carter’s, considered among the 20th century’s worst presidents, but today Obama’s punctured Carter’s dismal job approval line. On their comparison chart, Gallup put Obama’s job approval rating at 43 percent compared to Carter’s 51 percent.

Bedard goes on to observe that only Carter, Ford, and Truman have held approval rating averages as low as Obama’s, and of the three only Truman managed to get re-elected, which makes Obama’s eagerness to replicate Truman’s strategy of running against Congress easy to understand.

Approval ratings fluctuate a lot, and many twists and turns await between now and the 2012 elections, not least of which is the GOP’s choice of a candidate.  Extended poll doldrums are a greater threat to an incumbent than period spikes up and down, and it’s been a long time since Obama had any wind in his sails.  His image of hapless, disconnected aloofness is pretty well set in stone – both metaphorically and literally, he spent way too much time on the golf course hoping that voters would forget about him and seek another target for their displeasure. 

Obama’s endless taxpayer-funded campaign junkets have hurt him as well.  He’s like a salesman that never delivers the products you paid for, but keeps showing up with a new catalogue and urging you to place another order.  People who aren’t political junkies don’t follow every twist and turn in the saga of an Administration, which means they never learn about some things that would reflect badly on the President… but it also means they can form a deadly general impression of a guy who turns up occasionally to burble out a forgettable focus-grouped speech, while the American economy burns to the ground around him.

The big problem with running against “the do-nothing Congress,” for a candidate of either party, is that public unhappiness with Congress is pretty much baked in the cake.  This general disdain combines with widespread support for a voter’s individual representatives – they have very high re-election rates, after all.  This raises the risk that an adversarial President will be seen as running against “their guy” instead of “the rest of those bums.” 

Additionally, the perennial bipartisan distaste for Congress has led voters, rightly or wrongly, to assign a great deal of both credit and responsibility to the President.  Obama looks weak and feckless running against a largely faceless Republican opposition, which even the more disinterested voter knows has only controlled one house of Congress for less than two years.  The burden of Washington ennui falls heavily upon the man with the bully pulpit, who hasn’t been using it for anything except partisan sniping, when he bothers to show up behind the microphone at all.

These same dynamics could lead a reversal of the nation’s economic fortunes to benefit Obama disproportionately, especially since he’ll have no shortage of media cheerleaders standing by to sing his praises.  Meanwhile, it’s not surprising that the vacant Obama Oval Office has finally managed to slip beneath Jimmy Carter’s train-wreck presidency.  At least Carter showed up to take a little responsibility, every now and then.