Obama: The Most Admired Man or Worst President Since WWII?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton both made Gallup’s list of top 10 most admired women, and both President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin both made the list of most admired men.

True, both the president and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were at the top of the list, while Putin fell last out of 10, and Palin was at seventh, but the President of the United States is historically almost always at the top of the list, and with Hillary Clinton gaining so much attention with the “will she, won’t she” wait on 2016, it’s not surprising her name crops up as much as it does. What is somewhat surprising is that she’s made the list 19 times so far, according to Gallup. She has worn many hats, from first lady, to Secretary of State, to potential presidential candidate in 2008, not to mention her current presidential potential, and as a result her name has been in the air for many years. When dissecting this particular poll and comparing it to others, it’s hard to dispute Clinton’s place on the list of most admired women, given this multi-decade stretch in the public consciousness.

What’s interesting is that among a list of academics, movie stars, key international figures, and foreign royalty, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Laura Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton are the other American politicians listed, but none take the top spot, which is reserved for our less-than-fully loved president. It’s fairly clear that the set up of the poll — i.e. open ended so that respondents must conjure names on the spot — is likely to pull out names most recently in the news and most talked about in general. Given that earlier this year in July, Quinnipiac University released a poll stating that “Obama is first as worst president since WWII,” just above the 28% who chose President George W. Bush. Gallup also reports as of December 26 through December 28 that Obama’s approval rating was at 45% and his disapproval at 50% which suggests that while he may be listed as most admired, admiration doesn’t appear to be synonymous with liking him.

So are Americans just fickle, or is there something wrong with the polling method? On the one hand, it’s fairly clear that this is not a single-year clash. There is a consistent trend in approval ratings of presidents in their second term being low like Obama’s. There is also, as noted above, a trend in the current president being listed as most admired — with the exception of a few years where the president was particularly unpopular, or another male was unusually popular at the time.

So now that we know this odd contrast in polls is at least perpetual, where does the error lie — assuming there is indeed a cause for the seemingly opposing ideas portrayed? The Quinnipiac University poll we’ve already examined, and in part its results were influenced by the way Republicans and Democrats split their votes, or didn’t split their votes. For example, Republicans voted more unanimously, while Democrats tended to spread their votes, making the results slightly skewed. Looking at Gallup’s admiration poll, a similar problem in partisanship explains the results.

As with the Quinnipiac poll, it doesn’t disprove that he received the most mentions, it simply shows that were it not for the partisan split and the way each party voted, he may well have not been listed — i.e. he only received 41% of votes across parties, 33% Democrats, and 8% Republicans — suggesting many Republican votes likely went toward most admired men that did not make the top 10 list. In other words, the votes were scattered and it resulted in a more strong Democratic vote, the mirror of Quinnipiac’s divide. Rather than Democrats having votes scattered among Democratic presidents, it’s the Republicans whose vote is scattered in this poll.

This dissection is notable because it dulls the sharp edge of many headlines these types of polls tend to produce. It’s not that Obama can’t be the most admired man for Americans and still be the worst President since WWII — clearly we lend a great deal of respect to presidents, in the polls if not in real life — because the method each poll utilized (open ended versus a list of options) and the descriptors and questions used differed. Admiration of a man and thinking he did a better job than his predecessor are two different things. But it does tend to detract from each to see the different ways Americans answer questions and give opinions depending on poll set up.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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