The United States, like any nation, has periods of decreased prosperity, recession, and periods of both economic and political difficulty. Historically, we’ve gone through a series of cycles in which our nation seems to be at its lowest — the horizon darkened by poor markets and international conflict before a sudden upswing finds us back in the sun once again.
During the Great Depression, unemployment rose from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent in less than five years. The New Deal reforms and the Second World War, in particular, revived the American economy, and that postwar boom lasted decades. However, the social, political, and economic toll of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam — combined with several other factors — halted that growth. And the Iraq War affected the U.S. economy in a similar fashion.
The political hangover from Vietnam faded with time and distance, and Iraq will eventually lose its prominent role in U.S. foreign policy. But for now, post-Iraq politics continue to plague U.S. relations — a necessity thanks to the rise of the militant group ISIS or a poorly conceited pitfall, depending who you ask. Political malaise has been exacerbated by the slow economic recovery and Washington’s inability to legislate, particularly on immigration policy. Americans, both Republicans and Democrats alike, are frustrated with their leaders in Congress and in the White House. But it’s debatable whether the political discontent is a result of failure in Washington D.C. or simply a response to national conditions; the equivalent of blaming your plumber for basement leaks during a flood.
A poll from Gallup rather suggests that Americans’ political frustrations are simply a response to national conditions, though it’s likely stagnation in Washington plays a role as well. Sorry, nothing is ever simple, is it? Looking at poll data from his second term, March of 2013 through July of 2014, Obama’s approval ratings, while low, were higher in general than when his ratings on the economy and on foreign affairs are broken down, as seen above. Yes, his ratings in all three categories have decreased since his first term, but that’s to be expected as events overseas and at home have led to lower approval ratings for him on foreign affairs, and in general.
Interestingly, other presidents didn’t see the same second term dip. Reagan’s overall approval rating and approval on economy and foreign affairs went up, as did Bill Clinton’s. George W. Bush was in the same boat as Obama, only worse, dropping from 63 percent overall approval to 40 percent, compared to President Obama’s drop from 50 percent to 45 percent approval.
These difference could be explained several ways. It could show that other presidents have managed two terms of setbacks and difficulties without such major drops in approval. But it could also show that public opinion is heavily based on events, as opposed to leadership. In recent years, both Democratic and Republican presidents have been handed severe economic and foreign policy crises, and, as a result, their administrations suffered under the gaze of public opinion. Comparatively, more outward facing conflict — for example, communism under Reagan — had a way of directing fear and anger at the proverbial other.