Understanding Obama’s Approval Rating

by Reihan Salam

Jeffrey Jones of Gallup has written an eye-opening survey of President Obama’s declining approval rating. Perhaps the most arresting number is the racial gap, which Ron Brownstein cited last month in his National Journal column on “The New Color Line.” Jones writes:

Given the 17-point drop in his approval rating among all U.S. adults, it follows that Obama’s support has declined among all major demographic and attitudinal subgroups, with one notable exception — blacks.

Blacks’ support for Obama has averaged 93% during his time in office, and has been at or above 90% nearly every week during his presidency. Thus, part of the reason Obama’s support among nonwhites has not dropped as much as his support among other groups is because of his consistent support from blacks. (With Hispanics’ approval rating down five points, greater declines among Asians, Native Americans, and those of mixed races account for his total seven-point drop among nonwhites.)

This is in tune with the conventional view that President Obama has always had a strong appeal among black voters. In late 2007, when Obama remained an unfamiliar figure, he lagged behind Hillary Clinton among a number of African American constituencies, particularly older voters. But after Obama’s victory in Iowa, when the candidate demonstrated his electoral viability, Clinton lost a tremendous amount of black support to Obama, despite lingering goodwill towards Bill Clinton.

But here’s the interesting part: black workers, particularly young black workers, suffer from an unusually high unemployment rate. V. Dion Hayes of The Washington Post offers a useful rundown of the grim statistics.

The jobless rate for young black men and women is 30.5 percent. For young blacks — who experts say are more likely to grow up in impoverished racially isolated neighborhoods, attend subpar public schools and experience discrimination — race statistically appears to be a bigger factor in their unemployment than age, income or even education. Lower-income white teens were more likely to find work than upper-income black teens, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, and even blacks who graduate from college suffer from joblessness at twice the rate of their white peers.

There are, of course, variables other than age, income, and education that might prove confounding, e.g., young black workers might be more likely to have family obligations that could cause employment disruptions. And I assume that the Center for Labor Market Studies has controlled for the concentration of black workers in economically distressed regions — another contributing factor.

The political upshot is clear: you’d expect that the hardest-hit workers would be least inclined to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt. Instead, a large portion of the hardest-hit workers are ardent Obama supporters.

One straightforward explanation for this phenomenon is ideological: the president has committed himself to a sweeping government-led transformation of the American economy in the name of generating high-wage jobs. While I don’t think this is the right way to go, and I’m guessing most NRO readers would agree with me, this kind of appeal might work for Democrats, and black voters overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic party. Jones suggests that this is not a sufficient explanation.

One reason Obama may have maintained support among blacks is their overwhelming affiliation with the Democratic Party. This is not a sufficient explanation, though, because Obama’s approval rating has dropped among Democrats even as it has held steady among blacks.

In fact, it appears as though Obama’s relatively small loss in support among Democrats has come exclusively from white Democrats. In late January/early February, Obama averaged 87% approval among white Democrats and 90% approval among nonwhite Democrats. Now, his approval rating among white Democrats is 76%, down 11 points, but is essentially the same (if not a little higher) at 92% among nonwhite Democrats.

Just as Bush’s job approval ratings came to depend on a demographic core of white evangelical voters based in the Mountain West and the Deep South, President Obama has an electoral redoubt of minority voters that may well stick with him regardless of changing economic circumstances. One potential concern for the Democrats, however, is that large numbers of competitive districts in next year’s congressional elections are concentrated in heavily white regions. And as Jones notes, Obama’s approval rating among white voters has fallen to 39 percent.

At the end of Jones’s analysis, he notes the following:

It is important to note that this pattern is not unique to Obama. For example, Bill Clinton averaged 55% job approval during his presidency, including 52% among whites but a much higher 76% among nonwhites and 82% among blacks.

Bill Clinton, however, governed during a time of robust job growth, and African American voters were among the main beneficiaries of the changed economic climate. It is possible that black voters have become more intensely partisan Democrats over the intervening years.

Persistent black support is something that President Obama should be very thankful for. If black voters decided to hold the president accountable for the deterioration in the employment picture, he would be in dire shape. One could argue — and many on the left will argue — that African American voters are right to be patient, and that the Bush administration is to blame for the downturn. This argument has a surface plausibility, yet one could just as easily argue that the unraveling of the housing market has much to do with policies that began long before the Bush administration. Moreover, the Obama White House made a decidedly ambitious case on behalf of its economic stimulus package.

My view is that while there may have been a case for economic stimulus, something like Greg Mankiw’s stimulus proposal would have been a much better bet. Moreover, we’ve created a number of work disincentives (Casey Mulligan has been ably chronicling these measures) since the first panicked responses to the financial crisis that have undoubtedly cut against the stimulus, and there are more on the way. The Obama administration looks set to propose a new jobs tax credit that might already be dampening job creation by encouraging employers to wait for the tax credit. A while ago, I thought that a new job tax credit might be a decent idea. I quickly concluded that it could easily be gamed, and that payroll tax relief would be a more transparent and effective way to achieve the same end.

If Republicans developed a better and more effective pro-jobs agenda, will African American voters abandon the president in large numbers? I doubt it. I do think, however, that such an agenda, particularly one that pays special attention to the long-term unemployed and young workers, would yield political benefits all the same, leaving aside the fact that embracing such an agenda is the, you know, right thing to do.

I’m feeling strangely optimistic this Thanksgiving Eve. It could be that the wrenching economic climate will be with us for a while, but a generation of young people are relearning valuable lessons about the flaws of top-down approaches to public policy. Maybe we had to learn that central planning doesn’t work for ourselves, and not rely on increasingly hazy memories of stagflation. (I know, I know: “central planning” is unfair. “Central nudging” or “centralish wishful thinking” don’t have the same ring.) Granted, this is a pretty expensive lesson, and those of us who are in our prime working years are going to suffer. But we’ll come out of this funk eventually.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.