What History Tells Us About Obama’s Chances

The worst thing the incumbent could do would be to let his mediocre approval rating spark self-pity

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5, 2012

The future is unknowable, Winston Churchill once wrote, but the past should give us hope — or at least a clue about what might happen next. Sometimes history is instructive; sometimes it isn’t. But one thing is certain: it’s the only totally tangible thing we have to go on as we assess how we got here and where we may be going.

That’s why one of my favorite websites is gallup.com, which is a kind of nerdy nirvana, especially on presidential approval ratings. Taken together, the collection of ratings through the ages offer us an American family album of snapshots — glimpses of how we felt in given moments since the end of World War II.

(PHOTOS: Oval Office Secrets from Truman to Obama)

So what does the polling history tell us in this political spring? As of May 1, President Obama has a 47% approval rating, which falls in that perilous sub-50% region. Since World War II, five Presidents have been at sub-50% approval-rating polling in May of the re-election year; of those five, only two, Harry Truman (39%) and George W. Bush (49%), won the November election. The other three (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) failed to secure re-election. (I have left Lyndon Johnson out of the calculation because of the extraordinary circumstances of succeeding an assassinated President.)

The re-election winners were Bill Clinton at 55%; Ronald Reagan at 52%; Richard Nixon at 62% (which makes the decision to break into the Watergate the following month all the crazier); and Dwight Eisenhower at 69%. It appears unlikely that Obama will get even to Reagan levels by fall, which means the incumbent is, statistically speaking, in roughly the same position as Bush 43, when he was in the run-up to the election against John Kerry.

Which should give the Obama team some confidence, or at least shouldn’t create additional reasons to worry.

(MORE: Meacham: Why Obama Owns bin Laden)

Political dorkdom aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the psychic effect such numbers must have on Presidents. Imagine being any one of the men we’ve just discussed — men who have worked years, sacrificed much and fought hard — and imagine knowing that more than half the people you lead don’t think you’re doing a good job. How would you like that?

Yes, I know the reflexive response: these guys ask for the job, they have to take the rough with the smooth, it’s all part of the game. Thomas Jefferson, who detested criticism, knew this; so do most Presidents in their more philosophical moments.

Few human beings, however, live perpetually in philosophical moments. One of Theodore H. White’s gifts as a journalist and a writer was an intuitive understanding of politicians as human. In White’s The Making of the President 1964, which is in many ways a more interesting book than its more celebrated predecessor about the 1960 election, White spoke of “the politician’s optic,” in which the hostile language in any story stands out in large caps on the page while anything positive fades. “This is an occupational disease of politicians, just as it is for authors and actors, who similarly live by public approval or distaste,” White wrote of Johnson.

Polls come and go, and rise and fall. The numbers suggest Obama stands a basically even chance of winning in November. One factor that may prove decisive is how well he manages his job’s intrinsic tendency to turn its occupant surly or self-pitying. He’s got a bit of margin, but not much.

MORE: Inside the Presidents Club