U.S. Election Notebook #8: Approval and Disapproval

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President Barack Obama White House Sasha Obama

August 5, 2009 – President Barack Obama’s daughter Sasha hides behind the sofa as she sneaks up on him at the end of the day in the Oval Office (White House (Pete Souza), Wikimedia Commons).

In the eighth of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca University professor Paul Kellogg explores the thesis, that Donald Trump’s campaign represents a backlash against the presence, for eight years, of an African-American president in the White House. In the seventh of the series entitled Glass ceilings and backlash, Dr. Kellogg examined the sexism frequently directed against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Who supports who

It is telling that almost two-thirds of white men support Donald Trump. It is telling that just one in four white men support Hillary Clinton. Inescapably this kind of polarized result raises the issue of gender in the election campaign. It also raises the issue of racialization, particularly when we add into the mix the 91% support by African-Americans for Hillary Clinton and the risible 1% support by the same group for Donald Trump.

Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for the Slate, has put forward an hypothesis – that a key factor in play in the 2016 election, is a backlash in sections of the white electorate against the very fact of having had an African-American president for eight years.

For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism … Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.

We need to take seriously this hypothesis – that opposition to Clinton is in part a proxy for racially charged anger towards eight years of President Barack Obama.

Recently, President Obama’s overall levels of support have been rising, sitting in September above the key 50% threshold. But for a long period of time in 2014 and 2015, it became commonplace to remark that his levels of support were at historically low levels. Racially charged anger has clearly been a factor for at least some among those opposing President Obama. An earlier post outlined the ridiculous – and extremely racist – birther movement, supported by Donald Trump amongst others.


Figure 3 shows President Obama’s approval rating from January 2009 until September 2016, the bars pointing upward when his rating is above 50%, pointing downward when below. You will see that in fact while his overall ratings (the solid black bar) were positive in his first year of office (2009), they turned negative and stayed there until this year where they have (just barely) crossed the 50% threshold.

However, this is a rather fine performance when approval ratings are put in historical perspective. George W. Bush saw his approval ratings soar to the 90% mark in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. But they steadily fell from that point on, dropped below 50% in mid 2005 and never recovered, hovering at the very low 30% level for most of the rest of his presidency. Three times his favourability rankings touched the 25% mark, a level of unpopularity never approached by President Obama.

White House Barack Obama Graph

Source: Author’s compilation from data available in Gallup, Obama Weekly Job Approval by Demographic Group.

This – President Obama’s higher level of popularity than George W. Bush – has often been obscured by sensationalist press coverage. To take just one example, a 2015 article in the Daily Mail carried the headline – “Obama less popular than every living president – including George W. Bush.” Those interested can read the article for themselves, to attempt to unravel the logic of the author. But if the implication is that there is a parallel between President Obama’s level of unpopularity and that of George W. Bush, this is absolutely false. There is no such parallel. Certainly through his second term in office Bush was a far more unpopular president than Obama.

Sleight of hand?

Unless you engage in a statistical sleight of hand, and focus, for President Obama, solely on his support levels in that portion of the electorate which is white. Only in the first few months of President Obama’s tenure has he experienced majority support among white voters (the white bar on Figure 3). In the summer of 2009, his support among white voters turned negative, and has never substantially recovered. Only if you contrast Obama’s support among white (non-racialized) voters with Bush’s support among all voters, white and racialized, can you make the case that the two are similar in terms of levels of unpopularity.

But to do so would of course, be ridiculous, because it would obscure President Obama’s very high levels of support among non-white voters. The graph shows that for non-white (i.e. racialized) sectors of the society, President Obama has never slipped into negative territory in terms of his approval ratings. Support amongst Latina/Latino voters in 2011 and 2014 dipped to just above 50%, but has since recovered to sit at just under 70%. For racialized voters as a whole, support for President Obama has in most years been above 70%. And for African-American voters, his support has never averaged less than 80%, and on occasion has crossed the 90% threshold. So even while the white electorate remains, by a strong majority, hostile to Obama, his overall support levels are now in majority territory.

Emotion really does have a colour. When we hear anger towards President Obama, we are usually hearing white, non-racialized anger. When this manifests itself at pro-Trump rallies, this anger is, in fact, often white hot. While President Obama is of course not a candidate in the current election, it is extraordinary the extent to which the support for candidate Clinton mirrors the support for the sitting President, and the way in which the support for candidate Trump mirrors the opposition to the sitting President.

Michelle Obama, in her extraordinary speech to the Democratic National Convention, said: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”, referring to her life in the President’s official residence, the White House. We need to take seriously Bouie’s hypothesis – that one key factor driving support for Donald Trump and his extremist, racialized rhetoric, is an angry, white, mostly male backlash against the unprecedented fact of having an African-American in that House for eight years.

In the next post, entitled Locking up the vote, Paul Kellogg looks at mass incarceration and its implications for U.S. electoral politics.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures

Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

Blay, Zeba, ‘Why Michelle Obama’s “I Live In A House Built By Slaves” Quote Is Vital’, The Huffington Post, 2016 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-michelle-obamas-i-live-in-a-house-built-by-slaves-quote-is-vital_us_57976fbce4b02d5d5ed2dbeb> [accessed 15 September 2016]
Bouie, Jamelle, ‘How Trump Happened’, Slate, 13 March 2016 <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/cover_story/2016/03/how_donald_trump_happened_racism_against_barack_obama.html> [accessed 21 March 2016]
Chambers, Francesca, ‘Barack Obama Less Popular than Every Living President Including George W. Bush’, Daily Mail, 3 June 2015 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3109475/Obama-popular-living-president-including-George-W-Bush.html> [accessed 8 September 2016]
Gallup, Obama Weekly Job Approval by Demographic Groups (Gallup.com, 4 September 2016) <http://www.gallup.com/poll/121199/Obama-Weekly-Job-Approval-Demographic-Groups.aspx> [accessed 2 April 2016]
———, Presidential Approval Ratings – George W. Bush (Gallup.com, 2009) <http://www.gallup.com/poll/116500/Presidential-Approval-Ratings-George-Bush.aspx> [accessed 8 September 2016]