PRINCETON, NJ -- Throughout his second term, President Barack Obama's overall job approval rating has exceeded his approval ratings on both the economy and foreign affairs, arguably the two most important areas of focus for presidents. Obama's 36% approval rating for handling foreign affairs and 35% approval on the economy in Gallup's Aug. 7-10 poll, compares with a higher 44% overall job approval rating in the same poll.
Obama's job approval rating has been a bit lower -- averaging 42% in Gallup Daily tracking -- since that Aug. 7-10 poll, which was conducted as the U.S. commenced airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq.
That Obama's overall approval rating is higher than his ratings on foreign affairs or the economy is evidence he is getting a more positive review from the public than would be expected given his ratings on the two major issues. This is a change from his first term, when his average overall approval rating (50%) matched his average foreign affairs approval rating, but still exceeded his economic approval rating (41%).
All these ratings are lower for Obama in his second term than in his first term, but his average foreign affairs rating has dropped more than his economic approval rating or his overall job approval rating.
Gallup regularly began measuring presidential approval for handling the economy and foreign affairs during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Since then, there have been different patterns in how these measures compare for the various presidents. For some, like Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, the patterns varied across the presidents' two terms.
Looking at the last nine presidential terms, three basic patterns emerge in how Americans rate the president on the economy and foreign affairs in comparison to how he his handling his job overall.
- Presidents are generally rated higher overall than on both the economy and foreign affairs.
This has been the most common pattern, describing five of the nine presidential terms since 1981, including Obama's second term to date, in which his average foreign affairs and economic approval ratings are six and seven percentage points lower, respectively, than his overall approval rating.
This pattern was apparent in both of Reagan's terms. Reagan's average overall approval rating was roughly eight points higher than either his average economic or foreign affairs approval ratings in both his terms in office.
Notably, even though Reagan is remembered for presiding over a strong economy near the end of his first term and throughout his second term, his economic approval ratings were never that high. Even when his overall job approval rating exceeded 60% for much of 1985 and 1986, his economic approval rating peaked at only 52%.
During Clinton's first term, his overall approval rating slightly exceeded his foreign affairs and economic approval ratings.
George W. Bush's overall approval rating of 63% during his first term also surpassed his ratings on the two main issues by healthy margins. After 9/11, Bush's job approval rating was likely more closely tied to his approval for handling terrorism, which usually exceeded 60%, than his handling of the economy or foreign affairs.
- A president's overall job approval rating falls between his economic and foreign affairs ratings.
If Americans were mostly judging presidents based on their handling of the economy and foreign affairs, one would expect their overall approval rating to fall in between those two ratings. That has been the case for some recent presidents, but is not the norm. This pattern seems to occur most often when economic conditions or U.S. foreign policy are doing very well, or very poorly.
Obama's first term best fits in this category. He received lower ratings on handling the economy, as would be expected given the state of the economy when he took office, but his foreign affairs rating was higher and matched his overall job approval rating.
George H.W. Bush entered office with extensive foreign policy experience, and Americans credited him for his handling of foreign affairs as he navigated the U.S. through the end of the Cold War and a decisive victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq. His 63% average foreign affairs approval rating is the highest for any recent president, and exceeded his overall approval rating.
On the other hand, Bush was never judged well for handling the economy, only exceeding majority approval one time early in his presidency. His average 35% approval for handling the economy is the worst of any recent president.
Clinton defeated Bush in 1992 largely due to the poor economy, and Clinton's average economic approval ratings in his first term were also not strong. It wasn't until late in his first term that Americans consistently gave Clinton positive economic approval ratings. Clinton's economic approval ratings got even better as the economy continued to grow in his second term, averaging 69% with a high of 81% in January 1999.
The strong economy also helped lift Clinton's overall job approval rating during his second term, to a 60% average, but his foreign affairs approval rating was lower, at 55%.
- A president's overall job approval rating is similar to his economic and foreign affairs ratings.
The only clear example of a president receiving an overall job approval rating similar to his ratings on both the economy and foreign affairs occurred during George W. Bush's second term. The war in Iraq dominated Bush's second term, but he also dealt with major economic troubles such as record-high gas prices, the recession, and the financial crisis near the end of his presidency. Not surprisingly, his approval ratings across the board were low.
Clinton's first term could arguably be included in this category as well.
To date, no president's overall approval rating has averaged lower than his ratings on the economy and foreign affairs.
Even though Obama's overall job approval rating is not stellar, it is higher than his rating on handling the economy and foreign affairs. The deficit cannot be explained on the basis of Americans evaluating Obama more favorably on other issues that may be more important to them. Education is the only one of seven issues measured in the Aug. 7-10 poll on which Obama's approval for handling the issue (48%) exceeded his overall approval rating.
There are two possible explanations for the discrepant approval ratings. The first is Americans may be evaluating Obama on factors other than his handling of these issues. For example, in June, Gallup found Obama's ratings on personal characteristics, such as being a strong and decisive leader, understanding problems Americans face in their daily lives, and being honest and trustworthy -- though lower than in the past -- still exceeded his overall job approval rating. Also, the public typically gives presidents higher personal favorable ratings than job approval ratings.
The second possibility is that Americans may just rate presidents more positively in a general sense than they do when focusing on specifics. Although that has not been the case for every recent president, there are exceptions when there are strong and obvious differences in how a president handles foreign affairs versus the economy, as with the elder Bush, or if conditions in one or the other area are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.
Explore President Obama's approval ratings in depth and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Aug. 7-10, 2014, with a random sample of 1,032 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.