Over the last few years, there has been an increasing amount said about President Barack Obama’s managerial style. Most presidents, especially at certain points during their time in office and especially when Congress is held by a majority in the opposing party, are critiqued for their ability to lead. But Obama has had some specific complaints lobbed at him regarding his ability to work with others; some of them are fair points. First, let’s look at his approval rating.
While Obama’s performance approval numbers have been quite low — something critics are quick to leap on — they haven’t been that much worse than other presidents during the same term. According to the Pew Research Center, Obama’s 47% approval rating in January of his second term was higher than George W. Bush’s (33%), lower than Bill Clinton’s (63%), and around the same as Ronald Reagan’s (49%) during their second terms at the same time.
One thing that can be said for Obama is that of all the presidents in the last 60 years, he has the lowest high, although not the lowest low. In other words, thus far, his highest approval rating was 64% in February 2009, which is lower than the lowest since 1958, at 68% (Presidents Richard Nixon and Reagan). Given his upcoming exit from office and the general trend in controversial presidencies to go from high to low, its unlikely he’ll be making it above 64%.
Obama’s lowest approval rating, on the other hand, was at 41% in November 2013, according to the Pew Research Center’s polling numbers. This may not be consistent with other polls that have him at a lower approval rating, but for the sake of comparing across presidencies, it’s at least a consistent source of polling data. What a comparison to other presidencies shows is that Obama’s lowest approval number is actually considerably higher than all but two other presidents since Eisenhower.
Just because Obama’s worst moments haven’t dropped as low as George W. Bush’s or Nixon’s (at 22% and 24% approval, respectively) doesn’t mean there haven’t been legitimate concerns with his leadership. In particular, people from both sides of the aisle have discussed his hesitancy when it comes to making connections and greasing the wheels to get things done.
“For him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) of Obama, per the New York Times. For some, this may seem like a compliment, especially those who grow frustrated with politicians in Washington, D.C.
But schmoozing is sometimes what is needed to work with groups and individuals who may not be sold on policy initiatives. Which isn’t to say that a little hand-holding and a couple of beers between lawmakers would have convinced Ted Cruz that Obamacare was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but even just making the appearance of trying — beyond calculated press releases back and forth over each side’s willingness to work with the other may have made a difference.
It becomes abundantly clear how important this failing is for Obama when you consider Gallup’s polling results for his job approval and his ability to manage the government effectively viewed in parallel, as shown below. “The ability to manage government is clearly important to Americans, and previous Gallup research has shown that Americans cite management as one of the top qualities they desire in a president,” reports Gallup.
Most of the exchanges we’ve seen between the executive branch and legislature have involved Congress considering legislation that Obama promises to veto, Congress passing the bill anyways, and Obama vetoing it. That, or executive actions — most of which draw ire from Republicans and slow government accomplishments while attention is given to that conflict — which only have a short-term effect or are limited to a smaller group of affected individuals within the government’s employees or contractors.
“He approaches things like a law professor in presenting the logic of his position,” said David Axelrod, a former White House adviser, to Bloomberg. “There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that he resists. Sometimes he can be negligent in the symbolism.” The president’s systematic logic and research-based decision-making is what appeals to many, but it can also alienate others, coming off as both cold and calculating. It may seem as if there’s not much leeway for cooperation, nor room for the emotionally charged discourse so many Republicans bring to the table on major issues.